The Golden Age of the Hypertext

After reading both The Unknown hypertext and Robert Coover’s article on hypertexts for class this week, I was particularly interested by the sections in the “green line,” or live reading, sections of The Unknown hypertext that mentioned the writers’ relationship with Coover. The Writers of The Unknown hypertext make several references to Robert Coover, most notably describing the respect they have for him and his critical work regarding hypertexts, despite being a print novelist. They also note his references to “the Golden Age of Hypertext” – which he considers The Unknown to be a part of.

The comments from Coover were important enough to the writers that they actually open the section documenting their presentation at a Brown University symposium — “Fear and Loathing at Brown University” — by saying,

Coover liked our hypertext novel. He chose us as co-winner of the trAce/AltX Hypertext award, flew us to Brown and poured us a round of beers at the Brown Graduate Bar. When he introduced our reading, he referred to our hypertext novel as a throwback to “the golden age” of hypertext. What he meant was that our hypertext had no Shockwave animation, no synthetic music, no CGI scripting, no applets, and very few images. Ours was a “text-based” hypertext. We like to think that what Coover meant by “the golden age of hypertext” was, in fact, books.

Clearly, the Unknown’s hypertext is a far cry from the standard book, but reading (or listening to) an excerpt from Coover’s introduction strengthens this notion:

In the discussion on our website leading up to this conference, I detected—are you ready for this?—a kind of lament for the Golden Age of Hypertext, which perhaps has already passed us by. But the fact that hypertext is alive and well is evidenced by the AltX/trAce cowinner, The Unknown, a collaborative fiction about the imagined adventures of three supposedly rich and famous writers on a mock book tour all over the world.

Though The Unknown is a multimedia work in that it contains elements like sound bites and photographs, it is, as the writers acknowledge, basically a textual work, void of even any moving features. It contains a standard navigation bar at the bottom, featuring a color code that makes it easy for the user to identify which “line” they are currently following. Most other interaction follows directly from in-text links. Out of the other hypertexts that we have studied, the work visually reminds me most of Stuart Moulthrop’s Hegirascope, which features similar brightly colored text, in-text links, and navigation options along its sides. In terms of comprehension, the more direct writing style and color-coded navigation system make The Unknown much easier to piece together, though the work is so huge that it is in a way more intimidating than Hegirascope.

Viewing the source code of The Unknown confirms Coover’s assertion: the hypertext is, in fact, made up primarily of narrative text itself. Even in the code, the narrative section itself appears almost exactly as it would on a book page: spaced evenly and grouped by paragraph, almost uninterrupted by tags. The primary difference is the long section of Java Script appearing first, which comprises the navigation bar.

The coding of Hegirascope is similarly text-based. In this code, the text appears as one continuous line rather than an evenly-spaced paragraph, but it indicates the traditional reading process nonetheless.

When compared to the source codes of more recent works like The Mandrake Vehicles, the shift from the “Golden Age” that Coover indicates can be seen fairly clearly. Though a web browser visually presents the work as a book page with moving letters, requesting the source code does not  yield the text at all; the narrative is instead replaced by a code that cues the Flash Player sequence.

Perhaps it is this separation of story and coding that, for Coover, constitutes the end of the “Golden Age.” Typically, this term–regardless of what media form it is applied to–suggests a simpler time for which there is an acute sense of nostalgia. The Golden Age of Hollywood, for instance, is characterized by films that were at the time innovative (i.e. the advent of the “talkie”), studios that existed but had yet to engage in feuds and power-struggles, and the possibility of achieving commercial success on a medium-sized budget.

What is interesting about “Golden Ages,” however, is that while they are idealized by many, they also produce works that can now seem impossibly “safe” and clean. To me, being part of a “Golden Age” seems like a two-sided coin when dealing with hypertext, a form based on innovation and reinvention. On the one hand, the distinction marks the first steps away from the standard, which can be the hardest to envision; on the other, it serves as a baseline for the type of innovation that could occur, rather than pushing for the pinnacle of what is truly possible. In the case of The Unknown, though, this problem might have actually been avoided: while innovating in a way that respects the original textual form so admired by Coover, the piece truly pushes boundaries with its huge narrative, which encompasses not only the story itself, but everything surrounding its production.

Elise Hawthorne


~ by elisehawthorne on February 28, 2010.

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