Hypertext: A Literary Revolution or Elitist Pastime?

Alvin Wee, CCST02 Telling Stories in Cyberspace," University Scholars Programme, National University of Singapore

Reading Afternoon the very first time, I realized the true nature of a well-written hypertext. As I worked my way through the sometimes disorienting, but always fresh lexias, I found myself being drawn into a world of male concerns. I found the brutally frank discussions on sex and women somewhat questionable, and falsely stereotypical: the image portrayed of men seemed to be a wildly inaccurate one, yet one that seemed almost natural, typical in that alternate reality. Strangely enough, as a fellow male, I also felt a sense of bonding with the male characters, as if their almost crude dialog cut deeper into my own psyche than any subtly written piece of work. The surprise came during the class discussion when virtually all the opinions were unanimous: the story's main focus was on Death. My personal reading led me to through a vague concept of infidelity and the narrator's attempts to expose his wife's true nature. Perhaps it was due to the fact that I did not Žcomplete' the story, or that mis-judging a crucial lexia forced my understanding in a different direction. But most importantly, I had experienced the multiple possibilities of a hypertext firsthand: something I had been so skeptical about in the past, the unique, personal touch of a tailor-made narrative.

Repeated readings revealed more of the story, or rather, world Ůthe word Žstory' seems too one-dimensional for the multi-planar experienceŮ to me. The sense of disorientation developed into a curious sort of understanding, a sense of revelation of possibilities. In a sense, such a feeling was not unique or new to me, I often experience a similar sense of revelation and higher understanding when listening to progressive-rock music. Contemporary prog-rock bands like the incredibly technical Watchtower and the more commercial Dream Theater often adopt atypical song structures and dissonant melodies, continually challenging the standards and rules of traditional music composition. Initial exposure to such apparently jarring music almost invariably elicits negative reactions from even the most trained ears: the melody-line is either too unmelodic and discordant, or the rhythms too discontinuous to be enjoyed. Repeated listens are neccessary before the open mind and the practiced ear discerns the underlying framework of the song; the former non-melody starts sounding familiar and warm, and the odd rhythms take on a fluidity and life of their own. The excitement and pleasure gained from such a piece reaches, then surpasses that of the typical musical experience, and the listener is justly rewarded for his patience and time with a blissful knowledge that something on a higher plane has just been revealed to him.

As is quite evident, such an occupation requires more time and a higher level of concentration than normal. Similarly, hypertext demands that little extra something from the reader, be it determination, focus or simply time. No matter what proponents of hypertext say, the idea of being able to start and stop reading a text at any point is secondary, in the sense that to actually gain something deeper, the reader has to spend a certain amount of time reading a certain amount of the material. No doubt the multi-linearity of the text offers many Žsmaller' readings, but such pleasures can easily be obtained from standard, linear texts. In a sense, the hypertextual novel is like the prog-rock song: only repeated journeys through the text can reveal its true beauty, to the fullest extent.

The question now is: Is such a pastime suited for the world we're in? Information overload has caused us to skim the surface of things in order to keep up, and for many, critical reading and in-depth listening (of music) has become an unaffordable leisure. Progressive-rock has never attained the popularity of standard rock music due to the inordinate amount of effort required to appreciate it. It has developed into a strong niche market, a steadily growing and increasingly influential genre, but still one seen as elitist and inaccessible. Hypertext-optimists continue to hope that the reading public will learn to read in different ways, but as things stand, it will be a battle against the demands of the IT age and its emphasis on speed and economy. Ironic, it seems, that the very technology to provide the most viable medium for hypertext should work against the popularity of such a form in contemporary society.


Afternoon Discussion overview Hypertext Cyberspace Web