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Electronic Literature: Thinking Outside the Book


REDMOND, Wash. — It is perhaps not surprising that the wave of a literary revolution would break not far from the campus of Microsoft Corp., where hardly anybody would be caught reading something so retro as a book. Not in these days of Pocket PC readers and online magazines, not for a generation that grew up writing book reports on Word Star.

Here, at a recent evening at the home of Microsoft executive Richard Bangs, were all the elements of 19th century salon society--and a glimpse of how the salon of the future might look.

There were trays of light finger food and delicately chilled Chardonnay. Guests from high-tech east side Seattle mingled with representatives of the old-guard arts establishment and half a dozen writers of new fiction who had come to read from their work. The difference, in this 21st century drawing room, was that there were no books. A trio of laptop computers sat on a table, with an overhead projector pointed at a large screen. As authors stood to present their work, they moved from page to page with the click of a computer.

This was not text, but hypertext--a work of fiction on endlessly linked computer screens, often supplemented with audio and video imagery in the place of the mundane predictability of sequential pages. It allows readers to wander electronically within a novel to any plot twist, back story or rumination that interests them.

"With the traditional reading, you have the silent audience: attentive, rapt, staring up at the genius author waiting for enlightenment. We have given away that authorial control," said writer Dirk Stratton, who read from the hypertext novel he coauthored, "The Unknown." "We put up a space that's filled with text, that's filled with many different paths, and we let the audience tell us where to go."

This was the first reading hosted by the fledgling Electronic Literature Organization, a Chicago-based group devoted to developing hypertext--the medium most computer users know through the Internet, with the intricate, interconnected links that navigate the World Wide Web--into a postmodern literary art form.

Its books have no beginnings, middles or ends except as the reader elects to navigate through them; it is a liberation literature that, for good or ill, ends the tyranny of the writer over the reader, making them partners in a reading experience that may happen in different ways at different times.

"I can tell you that the amount of electronic literature is approximately doubling every month or two. It is growing at an exponential rate," said Katherine Hayles, professor of literature and science of the 20th century at UCLA. "If you're 20 years old and you've been raised on the Web, what is it like to sit down with a 600-page novel by Dickens? It seems like it's a very dead, noninteractive, boring medium."

The reading at the home of Bangs--editor at large for the Expedia Inc. travel Web site--featured some of the best-known names in electronic literature, including Shelley Jackson, author of an electronic takeoff on the Frankenstein story called "Patchwork Girl"; Rob Wittig, founder of tank20 Literary Studios, reading from his hypertext novel about office politics and romance, "Friday's Big Meeting"; and Newport Beach writer Marjorie C. Luesebrink, a professor at Irvine Valley College who recently published the CD-ROM novel "Califia" under the pen name M.C. Coverley.

"Arguably, a good 30% to 40% of the most interesting people in this field in the world are in this building right now," said Scott Rettberg, executive director of ELO, which is setting up symposiums and, with readings like the one on Seattle's upscale, high-tech east side, hoping to garner corporate sponsorships to help publish hypertext works and set up high-dollar prizes for those who write them.

The gathering was evenly divided between Microsoft techies and old-guard Seattle arts types. Scott Moore, publisher of Slate, was there talking about his online magazine's poetry column, which features streaming audio of poets reading their work.


Few of them had ever been to a hypertext reading or, indeed, knew much about how hypertext could become art. Gathering in Bangs' basement home theater, the crowd quickly rose to the challenge, enthusiastically shouting out links to be followed, with the writers grinningly complying.

Luesebrink introduced her work, "Califia," heralded as a hallmark of the newest generation of hypertext. Its 800 screens include not only text blocks but musical overlays and links to 2,400 images. The story begins with the lilting sound of a Spanish guitar, linking into old sepia-toned family photographs, maps, celestial navigation charts and blocks of text--told from three characters' points of view, depending on which thread the reader chooses to follow. It tells the story of the search for long-buried treasure and the history of a California family through several generations.

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