Hyperliterature - the apotheosis of self-publishing?

Originally published as an introduction to the Slope Hyperliterature Feature, Spring 2003. Includes a review of V by Stephanie Strickland, published by Penguin with an accompanying website at http://vniverse.com

My mother used to work as a secretary, and as a small boy I sometimes visited her office. I was fascinated by her manual typewriter: big and heavy, cold and grey. I can remember her typing at what seemed like incredible speed, occasionally stopping to make corrections with thick sharp-smelling fluid from a small bottle.

Copying was a problem. Almost every document she typed would have a top copy, then a sheet of carbon-paper, then a back copy, which came out grey and fuzzy. Sometimes there would be several carbon-sheets and several back copies, each one greyer and fuzzier than the one before. But if numerous copies were required, then she had to prepare something called a stencil or "Roneo". I assume that Roneo was a brand name. The typewriter punched letter-shaped holes through a flimsy sheet, the flimsy sheet was fitted to an inked drum, and copies could be made on plain paper by turning a handle at the side of the drum, dragging paper sheets underneath like laundry through a mangle, with each sheet picking up an inked impression from the drum on its way. The copies were poor-quality, the process of producing the stencil was laborious, and if a mistake was made at the typing stage it was almost impossible to correct. But this was the only cheap method of text reproduction available in the 1960s. If better quality was required, it meant going to a professional printer - prohibitively expensive per unit, unless your print run was in the hundreds.

New methods of reproduction were already on their way, however. The Rank Xerox company was founded in 1956. My brother became a printing apprentice in the mid-1970s, by which time photo-lithography, rather than printing from metal plates, was the norm in small printing firms. During his apprenticeship he was warned by one of his tutors that the whole printing industry was likely to be replaced by Xerox machines in the near future.

By the time I started my first job in 1976, electronic typewriters had begun to appear in offices, some of them "golfball" typewriters which could offer a variety of typefaces. Photocopiers had arrived too: the first one I ever encountered was a smelly machine which produced grey copies on tacky heat-sensitive paper, but wealthier firms already had plain-paper models, and people with access to them were already starting to use them for their own purposes. The era of the fanzine was about to begin.

1976 saw the birth of punk music, and part of the punk ethos involving doing it yourself, discarding technical mastery in favour of raw urgency, and steering clear of big business. Many of these ideas spilled over into the demi-monde of small publishing, initially inspiring a crop of punk fanzines, but later feeding into the wider culture of small-scale shoestring literary publishing, especially poetry publishing.

I was already in a poetry-society by the time I left school, and in 1978 we brought out our first publication. Initially it was a society newsletter, twelve pages for 15p (free to members). It soon turned into a small poetry magazine, published bi-monthly, usually 28 pages long. It ran for 26 issues, the last one appearing in early 1983, by which time the price had gone up to 35p (which was pretty cheap, even in those days). But even in our heyday, we never managed to sell more than 150 copies per issue. We never took any adverts, which might have been a valuable source of extra revenue, but our real problems were distribution and publicity. We had a few retail outlets - mostly local libraries, but a couple of shops too, including the Poetry Society Bookshop in London. Sales from these outlets remained modest, however, and only brought in a trickle of money. Most copies either went directly to society members (who paid a yearly subscription fee) or were sold in person to friends and acquaintances, at work or in pubs. We broke even. The only payment we could make to contributors was a free copy of the magazine.

This experience must have been fairly typical of the myriad of small publications which sprang into existence in the late '70s and early '80s. Some friends of ours launched an alternative local newspaper, which came out monthly for about a year. Various other poetry societies in our area brought out their own magazines; and in 1982, on a visit to Sheffield, I can well remember going into the foyer of the Crucible Theatre and discovering numerous small poetry magazines on a rack, all indigenous to Yorkshire and Derbyshire, including the following which I bought and later reviewed: Arrows, Pennine Platform, Northern Line, Kudos, Sheaf and Krax. Quite frequently, small publications would be sent to us through the post. Rupert Loydell sent us an early copy of Stride Magazine, for example - which brings me to the point that some of these publications are still going. Krax is still being published out of Leeds, and Stride itself has now partially transferred to the Web (at http://www.stridemagazine.co.uk/).

The little publishing revolution is still with us. Peter Finch (the Welsh experimental poet, author of How to Publish Yourself) writes as follows in his article "Poetry - A Vigour Verging on Ferocity", which was published in the 2000 edition of The Writers' Handbook (UK, MacMillan):

"...It was not until after the Second World War and the rise of the transatlantic mimeo revolution that amateur poetry magazine and pamphlet publication really took off. Recent advances have seen that revolution overturned again. Technologically literate poets are everywhere... Access to laser printers and the computers that drive them are commonplace. Desk-Top Publishing and Word Processing software make it so easy to do... Poets in growing numbers are able and willing to establish competent one-person publishing operations, turning out neat, professional-looking titles on a considerable scale.

"These are the small presses and little magazines... Professional distribution is still the age-old problem... Small mags go hand-to-hand among friends, at slams, readings, concerts, creative writing classes, literary functions, via subscriptions and are liberally exchanged among all those concerned. The network is large. The question remains: is anyone out there not directly concerned with the business of poetry actually reading it?"

Writing is in some ways the most democratic of the arts. No specialist equipment is required: no expensive musical instruments, no paints and canvases, no clay or stone. It can be practiced in confined spaces and at odd moments of the day. Anyone with a pen and some paper can produce a work of literature, which must be one reason why there are such enormous numbers of amateur writers. Publishing is another matter. Self-publication has become much more affordable in recent years, but although amateur writers may be able to bring out magazines, poetry-collections and short stories comparatively easily, it remains extremely difficult to distribute them widely or sell them in large quantities. Profitable publishing remains a tough nut to crack.

In the meantime, the big publishing companies are becoming less adventurous. Increasing commercialisation has meant increasing reluctance to take risks. Despite the fact that digital technology has opened up the possibility of a print-on-demand revolution, the trend has been towards fewer titles with bigger print-runs. Large publishers have swallowed up smaller ones, and large chains of bookstores have made it hard for small independent bookshops to stay in business. More and more bookselling is now being done via bookclubs and the internet itself, which again tends to emphasise high-profile, big-turnover titles at the expense of new and experimental work. Many publishers now refuse to consider unsolicited work unless it comes through a literary agent, and most literary agents are reluctant to take on new clients. New works of fiction are judged on the basis of a synopsis, a sample chapter and whether they seem to have good "selling angles". New and experimental writers still do get published - but only the lucky few. Many more are being driven into the same underworld as the self-published poets and the little magazine proprietors.

All of this is regrettable without being blameworthy. Commercial publishers don't owe anybody a living, and the fact is that the market is not as receptive to new writing as it used to be. In its heyday, the nineteenth century, the printed word was the dominant form of mass entertainment. Experimentation could go hand-in-hand with commercial success because the market was expanding all the time. Nowadays literature has to compete with radio, television, video, film, computer-games and so on. The market is still large, but it isn't expanding any more. What tends to happen under these circumstances is that the marketing and financial people get the upper hand over the creative thinkers. Innovation is marginalised. Things stagnate.

What has dramatically changed the terms of the equasion is the advent of the personal computer, which in turn has given rise to the phenomenal success of the Internet and the World Wide Web. Personal computers are by no means as cheap as pen and paper, but in the wealthy nations of the first world they have become almost as ubiquitous. As Peter Finch mentions in the quote above, the first impact of the PC revolution on self-publishing was that it put inkjet printers and desktop publishing software within the reach of ordinary people. But of far greater long-term significance was the fact that it gave writers access to the World Wide Web and e-mail - new forms of communication and distribution. Perhaps just as importantly, because texts on a computer can be structured differently from texts in print, it also gave rise to hyperliterature, which is a new form of writing.

The increasing popularity of hyperliterature as a literary form actually predates the World Wide Web by a few years. A program called Hypercard was supplied free with all Macintosh computers in the 1980s, before the World Wide Web came into being. It allowed users to create "stacks" of virtual notecards (hypercards) on a subject, and to connect them with each other via hyperlinks. Writers who were interested in computer technology soon began to use this system as a means of creating nonlinear stories.

In conventional fiction, each story is designed to be read from beginning to end in a fixed sequence: the format is "linear". This linear form of writing has come to dominate our method of storytelling, because our texts have nearly always been presented to us in the form of books, and in books the pages are bound together in a fixed sequence. Of course, it is entirely possible for a reader to read the pages of any book in a random sequence, but to do so would be an act of conscious sophistry, and presumably at variance with the wishes of the author. The way in which conventional narratives demand to be read is from beginning to end, taking all the pages and all the sections in the order in which they are bound. But this is not the only way of presenting a text. Before books became the predominant medium for the presentation of texts, they were often stored as collections of scrolls - the Bible is an example - and although each scroll had a beginning, a middle and an end, the collection as a whole would not be sorted into a fixed sequence. There are many different ways of reading the Bible, and the more-or-less chronological sequence into which it has been sorted for the sake of publication in book form is only one of them. Furthermore, the Bible contains what is perhaps the most famous example in our literature of a single story being told in a nonlinear fashion: namely, the story of Jesus as presented in the four Gospels. The Gospels do not have to be read in any particular sequence, and they tell the story of Jesus from four different viewpoints, sometimes with quite substantial differences of style, detail and chronological sequence. Despite these differences, or because of them, to subtract any one of the Gospels from the collection would be to diminish the narrative as a whole. They do not have the same unity as a conventional linear narrative: they have a different kind of unity instead, more ambiguous, more fragmented, and more challenging to the reader.

Linear narrative is an enormously powerful tool for holding the reader's attention and driving him or her forward through the length of a story to its conclusion, but precisely because of its emphasis on forward motion - which is a consequence of its sequential structure - it does have certain limitations. Any piece of writing which moves forward in a straight line from point A to point B is bound to place great emphasis on beginnings and endings. Linear narrative as a form also tends to presuppose progression from one state to another: the story has to get somewhere. And it tends to insist on chronological sequence. Flashbacks and parallel storylines can be accommodated, but never without a certain amount of awkwardness, and the overall movement has almost invariably got to be onwards, in chronological terms, rather than backwards or sideways.

Linear narratives are poor at showing the kind of existence where people just muddle along from one situation to another, without getting anywhere in particular or learning any valuable lessons. They perpetuate a myth of personal progress - the idea that life is leading us somewhere, even if it's to tragedy. And because they oblige their writers to simplify the stories they tell for the sake of forward momentum, they also perpetuate a myth of reality.

Imagine a car-crash witnessed by several different people. If statements were taken from the witnesses after the event, they would almost certainly differ from one another in various ways. One person might say that the two cars involved were red and green, whereas another might say red and blue. There would be different ideas about the time of day when the accident occurred, or the exact spot where it took place; about which car was coming from which direction; about the speeds at which they were travelling; about whether or not they tried to avoid each other; and certainly about who was to blame. Differences of opinion - or, to put it more accurately, differences of perception - such as these are commonplace, and in practice they are impossible to reconcile. A court of law may attempt to establish what "really" happened, for the sake of punishing or exonerating the parties involved, but once all the evidence has been heard, the final verdict can never be anything better than a calculated guess, a weighing of one possibility against another. Those who witnessed the accident, and those who took part of it, will carry away in their heads quite different versions of what took place. The "reality" of such an occurrence can never finally or fully be known, even by the participants. Perhaps there is no such "reality". Yet this kind of "reality" is precisely what linear narratives tend to present us with - simple, definitive versions of events - if only because alternative versions are so difficult for them to accommodate.

The nonlinear fiction which had started to be written in the 1980s, using hypercards, found a natural home on the Web. Pages in a book, as I have said before, are bound together in a fixed sequence, which encourages us to read them in order; but pages on the Web are laid out in a cloud, and theoretically at least it is possible to jump via a hyperlink from any given page on the Web to any other. This meant that once the World Wide Web began to establish itself during the 1990s(the WWW concept was originated by Tim Berners-Lee in 1989), the possibilities of nonlinear literature were, in a manner of speaking, released from small private files on personal computers and disseminated across the world. All web-surfers are accustomed to jumping from one page to another in a nonlinear sequence, so theoretically at least they ought to be well-primed for their first encounters with nonlinear narratives. Furthermore, it soon becomes apparent to any fiction-writers seeking to present their work on the Web that a nonlinear format gives them a much more dynamic and interesting way of doing so, rather than simply transferring their short stories and novels onto the screen, and obliging their readers to scroll through yards of unrelieved text.

But nonlinear narrative is only one of the new possibilities opened up for writers by hyperliterature. The fact that texts can now be shown on computer screens rather than on printed pages means that expense is no longer a constraining factor when it comes to matters of layout and presentation. If a conventional writer wanted to have his work printed in blue letters on a green background, it would be difficult for him to do so because of the expense involved. For a writer of hyperliterature, blue text on a green background is no more expensive than black text on a white background. Different typefaces can be used with the same abandon. Margin-depths, kerning, embellished capitals and "watermark" images are all freely available. And it doesn't end there. The text can also be animated in various ways: words can be made to flash on and off, to change from one colour to another, to shrink or grow, to move around the screen, and so on. Then there are the possibilities of multi-media. Words can be combined with sound-effects, with pictures, or with animations.

The pattern which seems to be emerging is that the most dramatic multi-media effects tend to be reserved for the shortest texts, whereas longer texts are treated more conservatively. There are certainly exceptions to this rule of thumb, but on the whole a longer work such as a hypertext novel will generally be presented more conservatively than a shorter piece such as a poem. The longer the narrative, the more it seems to call for straightforward reading without much distraction. There is also a logistical problem, in that the longer a text is, the more effort it would take to sustain a high level of multimedia effects all the way through. Conversely, the shorter a text, the more thoroughly it can be animated and decorated in a comparatively short space of time. What this has meant, in effect, is that hypertext poems tend to be presented quite differently from lengthy prose pieces. In the course of the last two or three years cyberpoems have developed into a distinct sub-genre, dominated by what is known as Flash poetry.

Really complex multi-media work still cannot be displayed on the Web without certain technical difficulties having to be overcome. Transmission-times across the Internet are constantly improving, but the fact remains that some types of information are much "heavier" than others, and therefore take much longer to send. You still can't view films over the Web, because a whole film's worth of images would take hours to download. Even something comparatively simple such as a short animation will suffer the same problem to a lesser degree. Another problem with animations is that all the images in the sequence need to be downloaded before the animation starts to run, or the animation will grind to a halt halfway through. This means that viewers have to sit and wait for the download to finish before the animation can be viewed, which tends to make them very impatient.

Software packages such as Flash were developed in an attempt to overcome some of these difficulties. They aim to deliver all parts of an animation - images and sound effects - as a single package which will run seamlessly once downloaded. They also provide some kind of on-screen animation to tell viewers how the download is progressing, which is better than leaving them to stare at an empty screen. The main problem with Flash is that you have to have a plug-in on your computer before you can run a Flash movie. But Flash has now become so popular that (according to the website its manufacturers, Macromedia) about 98% of internet-capable computers in the USA now have the Flash plug-in; there are 450 million Flash viewers worldwide; and new PCs are being fitted with the plug-in as standard. Hence the predominance of Flash in the cyberpoetry genre.

In some respects this predominance is slightly worrying. Flash poems do tend to look rather similar to one another. The majority of them seem to rely heavily on geometric shapes and machine-tooled effects of light and shade. All the same, some of the most interesting pieces of hyperliterature now available have been produced with Flash. One of my personal favourites is a piece called "Thump" by Tim Danko, published on the website of an Australian magazine called Overland Express (http://www.overlandexpress.org). It starts with a repeated gonglike noise and a white disk radiating concentric circles. The white disk turns into a glum face with red-rimmed eyes on top of a simplified pillar-like body, and the head starts to give off stars instead of circles. Then more stars come out in the sky, the head detaches itself from the body, the body turns into a skyscraper, and finally the head slowly starts to smile and rolls off into the darkness, now looking like the moon, and accompanied by the sound of a wind blowing. The text to this animation reads simply "When I saw stars, I left the building".

Flash and other technologies like it, as I have indicated, were developed to help overcome the difficulties of downloading "heavy" pieces of work across the Web. But publication on the Web is not the only option open to writers of hyperliterature. Another method of coping with the "heaviness" of multimedia works is not to publish them on the Web at all, but on floppy disk, CD or DVD.

The biggest publisher of hyperliterature on CD is the Eastgate corporation (www.eastgate.com), which brings out a wide range of hypertexts, mainly nonlinear novels, poetry and criticism, in much the same way that other publishers bring out books. Indeed, Eastgate is the only large-scale publisher of hyperliterature, so far as I know (although the Alt-X organisation publishes e-books at http://www.altx.com/). Eastgate are rather cagey about their sales figures, but claim that these are roughly in line with sales of printed "literary" novels. Given that they publish on CD, however, perhaps the most surprizing thing about Eastgate is that to date they have not brought out a great deal of multi-media work - although their website does include a Reading Room, which for some time now has been displaying two of the finest multimedia works available on the web, "Help" and "Him", both by Dane. So far as their CD publications are concerned they remain mostly devoted to text, much of it text which has been produced using their own Storyscape software, a descendent of the Hypercard system I mentioned earlier; and in this field they have brought out some of the most important and influential hypertexts to date, by writers such as Michael Joyce and Adrienne Eisen. Joyce's Afternoon, a Story was written in 1987, and is often cited as one of the seminal works of the hyperliterature genre.

Publication on CD brings us back to the question of self-publishing, because this is an option which is now available to virtually any writer with his or her own computer. CD-writers are not expensive, but in any case most new PCs now have CD-writing as a built-in function. This means that authors of hyperliterature can print off their works on demand, no matter how "heavy" those works may be, and sell them direct to any interested parties. But once the work is removed from the Web and confined to a CD, of course, the old problems of publicity and distribution rear their heads again. If members of the public can be persuaded to part with their money then publication on CD is a very attractive proposition for the small-scale publisher, because CDs can be printed one at a time (no large print-runs are necessary, therefore no large investment up front), they are comparatively cheap, and they are also very light compared to books, which makes them inexpensive to send through the post. It remains difficult, however, to persuade people to buy work from unknown writers, especially experimental work such as hyperliterature.

All the same, potentially at least, the personal computer revolution and the establishment of the World Wide Web have put self-published writers in a much stronger position than they enjoyed when they were obliged to bring out their work in print. Theoretically, the old problem of distribution has been solved at a stroke. Writers with their own websites are now in a position to display their work to the entire world, whereas in the past self-publication generally made it very hard for them to make names for themselves beyond their own immediate vicinities. Publicity remains a problem, but the Internet can help there too. E-mail is a very effective tool for letting people know what you're up to, and well-organised writers can soon build up sizeable lists of interested parties to whom they can send regular updates about their work. Web noticeboards are useful: two good ones for hyperliterature are the Hypertext Kitchen (http://www.hypertextkitchen.com/), which is run by Eastgate Systems, and the newsdesk at TrAce (http://trace.ntu.ac.uk). There are also lots of online communities devoted to new media writing and art, such as Jim Andrews' WebArtery group (http://webartery.com/).

The best way for self-published writers to bring their work to the attention of a wider public, however, is through the literary e-zines, some of which, like Slope, have now been around for some years, establishing substantial reputations and readerships. The good thing about e-zines from the public's point of view is that they are edited, which means that readers can feel confident the work in them will be up to a certain level, far above the level of vanity publishing. Writers who can consistently place their work in the more reputable e-zines will undoubtedly begin to build themselves reputations and followings, and readers can be expected to move on from the e-zines to the personal websites of the writers concerned. There are as yet only a few e-zines specifically devoted to hyperliterature and hypermedia, such as Beehive (http://beehive.temporalimage.com), the Iowa Review Web (http://www.uiowa.edu/~iareview/mainpages/tirwebhome.htm), Digital Fiction (http://digitalfiction.co.uk) and Poems that Go (http://www.poemsthatgo.com), but many others are now starting to host hyperliterature or hypermedia sections - for example Drunken Boat (http://www.drunkenboat.com/), 3rdBed (http://www.3rdbed.com/), Overland Express (http://www.overlandexpress.org) and Gumball Poetry (http://www.gumballpoetry.com/).

It is extremely difficult to predict how hyperliterature will develop over the next few years, because technology in the digital arts is changing all the time, at a bewildering pace. The rise of Flash poetry, which was unheard-of a few years ago, demonstrates how new sub-genres can spring up almost overnight. And although new technology is the force which drives the hyperliterature movement, it may also be its Achilles heel. As I mentioned above, writing is an extremely cheap art-form to practice, the basic requirements being nothing more than a pen and some paper; but hyperliterature is another matter. The costs involved are not huge, but they aren't negligible either. The first requirement, of course, is a computer with an internet connection. A good deal more is required on top of this, however, in order to produce a state-of-the-art hypertext: additional software such as Flash or Director, a digital camera, an image-processing package such as Paint Shop Pro, and so forth. Aspiring authors of hyperliterature will also want their own websites, which may involve domain-name registration and professional hosting. Compared with self-publication in print form, none of this is horrendously expensive. What is perhaps more deterring than the question of cost is the amount of technical expertise involved. Authors of hyperliterature don't have to be computer programmers, but they certainly do have to know a good deal more than how to set pen to paper. An understanding of website design is essential; HTML or XHTML are nearly indispensable; a smattering of JavaScript and/or Java is extremely useful; and some of the foremost practitioners of the art are obviously very competent in other coding languages such as Lingo. I don't want to exaggerate this aspect of hyperliterature, because it is my personal belief that original and exciting work can still be produced using nothing more than HTML, but equally it must be admitted that some of the most striking recent works in the field must have taken a lot of technical know-how to produce.

There is a real danger that writers of hyperliterature may begin to concentrate on the hyper at the expense of the literature. They may become so involved with the technology that they become uninteresting as writers, or they may allow a desire to enthrall and astonish their audience to get the better of their concern to say anything original and deeply-felt. On the other hand, it may simply be the case that the technology involved in hyperliterature will become too complicated for individual writers to cope with, with the result that the hypertexts of the future will be team efforts rather than individual ones - either teams of writers working together, or individual writers working with technical experts. The prevalence of collaboration is already a noteworthy aspect of the hyperliterature field, perhaps for this very reason, and it may be that in the future we will see writers, computer experts and visual designers working together on hypertext projects in much the same way that teams of people currently collaborate on TV programmes and feature films.

This in itself may be a danger. If the hypertexts of the future can only be produced by teams of people, working together intensively for fairly long periods of time, they may become almost impossible to bring out on an independent and self-financed basis. I began this essay by talking about the punk do-it-yourself ethic and the self-publishing revolution which it partially inspired in the 1970s and 1980s. The expansion of literary websites over the last few years has been very much a continuation of the same movement: to an enormous extent, the small magazines and small publishers have moved onto the Web and found a natural home there. Hyperliterature has been another stage in this progression. Literature could not be produced in a digital environment for long without beginning to adapt itself to the new medium - these adaptations were already taking place before the Web came along - and hyperliterature was the result. Up until now, hyperliterature has owed virtually nothing to commercial publishing, and it would be nice to think that individual writers and small groups may still have an important part to play in the years to come. For this to happen, on-line communities of hyperliterature writers may have to take their organisation a stage further. They may have to start selling and marketing their work to the public in a more organised fashion: setting up conferences, organizing literary events, sharing facilities for online payments and distribution, and so forth. Some of these things are happening already.

Analogies between hyperliterature and the music scene may not be all that far-fetched, because it is quite possible that if hyperliterature begins to establish itself as a saleable art-form, the methods by which it will be marketed will resemble the current music industry more closely than the current publishing industry. Literature on a CD or on the Web cannot be evaluated by potential buyers in the same way as literature in print form, after all. It can't be taken off a shelf and leafed through. It is also much more difficult to describe it in a review, or publish a short extract, than a piece of conventional text. But people will want to sample the work for themselves - in the same way that they now hear tracks from albums on the radio or TV - before they part with money for it. In the future, therefore, hyperliterature artists or groups of artists may bring out collections of their work on CD, in the same way that musicians bring out albums, and publicise these collections by publishing extracts in the e-zines, in much the same way that musicians publicise their albums by releasing singles and getting them played on the radio.

At this stage, talk about marketing strategies may seem a little premature. To date the commercial publishing companies have shown hardly any interest in hyperliterature: where they have ventured beyond the confines of traditional print at all, they have tended to move in the direction of e-books, which have been notoriously slow to sell. But if hyperliterature starts to show signs of commercial viability, doubtless the big publishers will want to move into the market. The first signs of this happening are already in evidence.

While I was preparing this essay, an American poet called Stephanie Strickland contacted me to ask if a review of her new collection - V: Losing L'Una/WaveSon.nets - could be incorporated into the first Slope Hyperliterature Issue. This collection is published by Penguin, and it takes the form of an "invertible volume", which can be read from either of the outside covers to the middle. On the centre-page spread is the URL of an associated website, http://vuniverse.com. Stephanie claims that this is "the first work of poetry to exist simultaneously in print and on the Web as one work". She developed the website with an expert called Cynthia Lawson, and she had help with the opening page of the site and the front/back page of the invertible book from another expert called Talan Memmott. "The poems were written from the start in order to live 'between' page and screen," she says, but "Neither Talan nor Cynthia had any influence on the writing/rewriting of the poems". As for Penguin's input, they accepted the collection purely on its virtues as poetry. Strickland's original idea was to have a book of poems accompanied by a CD, but although the book was accepted by three publishers, none of them were interested in this. However, "Penguin said they would give me all the electronic rights so I could do it as I pleased. And they have been wonderful about this, about getting me white paper, not manila-colored, which works better for a Web-related work. Things like that. I do not know that they have plans for other multi-media works," she adds, "but they are interested in contemporary poetry."

The first thing to be said about V is that, as its acceptance by three publishers suggests, it works very well as a stand-alone text. Strickland is an excellent poet. In a sense, however, the excellence of her poetry merely begs the question: why bother with a website? If the digital dimension is really such an integral part of the work, then how can we read the book without feeling that something is missing? If, on the other hand, the book can stand up perfectly well on its own, then isn't the website really extraneous?

But perhaps to put the matter in these terms is to put it too strictly. Reading poetry is not usually an all-or-nothing process, after all. One part of V, Losing L'Una, is concerned with the life and thought of Simone Weil (of whom Strickland has written a biography). It helps in reading this section if we know something about Weil - I don't know very much myself, except that she was a French philosopher and religious writer, a Catholic, that she worked for time in the Renault factory in France, was involved in a non-military capacity in the Spanish Civil War, and ended by starving herself to death, refusing to eat while the victims of World War II still suffered. All of this helps to explain some of the references in the poems, but equally it is possible to read them without knowing anything about Weil at all:


Evil is external to itself: where it is, it is not felt.

It is felt where it is not: the feeling

of evil is not



Presumably the philosophical tautness and moral precision of lines such as these owe something to Weil, but they will work perfectly well as poetry without Weil being brought into the question. In the same way, the hyperliterary dimension of the poems is not a required part of any reading, but adds depth to a reading once its presence is recognised and explored. In another poet, either the biographical references to Weil or the element of cyberpoetry might strike us as wilfully obscure or pretentious, but Strickland is too good a writer to come across as a pseudo-intellectual or a poseur.

There are thematic and structural elements in the poems which point us in the direction of hyperliterature. There is, for example, an insistence on the nonlinearity of the text:


Gentle Reader, begin anywhere. Skip anything. This text

is framed

fully for the purposes of skipping...

The WaveSon.nets seem consecutive at first glance, not least because many of the sentences run on from the end of one sonnet into the beginning of the next - and they are numbered consecutively too, from 1 to 47. Yet on the website we are encouraged to dip into them at random rather than read them in sequence, and Strickland makes allusion to structures which retain their identity as effectively in fragments they do on a large scale -

tracery of frost on glass.


section of such blown up - equally

exquisite, detailed, ever, over and over, a never

ending, never decaying, never


the same pattern...

The Wave Son.nets themselves attempt to duplicate this kind of structure, and the website brings out this aspect of them far more strongly than the printed collection. The main page of the site presents us with a night sky covered in stars, where we can select poems from the Wave Son.net sequence by clicking on a star. When a star is first selected it will sometimes reveal a constellation drawn in white lines across the screen, like the diagrams of constellations in books of astronomy or astrology. Then a few lines of poetry appear, fragmented but suggestive -

the time it takes

to recognise your mother.

From one hundred million

- and if we double-click the star, the whole of the Wave Son.net to which these lines belong comes up, itself a fragment of the sequence as a whole, and often fragmentary in style, since as I have mentioned many of the "sonnets" begin and end in mid-sentence. What the poems lose in coherence by being chopped about in this way, they easily make up in suggestiveness; and reading them in this hopping-and-dipping manner rather than in sequence seems to bring out more quickly the themes which run through the whole group - references to astronomy, to cosmological time, to mathematical sequences, to tarot cards, to Simone Weil again, and to the letter V, symbolising fertility and virginity both at the same time, femininity in general, "a woman in a conical hat", the spreading-out of stars in "a wedge of sky", and the spreading-out of electrons in a cathode ray-tube.

The poems in book form do have certain advantages over their counterparts on the website. For one thing, it is comparatively difficult to select a poem by pointing to a small target such as a star and double-clicking on it - much more difficult than turning a page. It is also more difficult, on the website, to find the same poem twice. And as a work of hyperliterature, apart from presenting us with poems, fragments of poems and a few constellation-maps, the website doesn't really "do" very much. It is essentially a one-page affair, and that page presents us with the same image all the time: stars laid out in a flat pattern. They don't get smaller or larger, they don't change colour, and there are no accompanying sound-effects. Despite Strickland's insistence that "The poems were written from the start in order to live 'between' page and screen", one is left with the feeling that the website has been designed very much as a means of displaying Strickland's writing: text is the dominant force here, rather than text and image, or text and sound, or text and animation, being equal partners in the work of art.

Is this the shape of things to come? Are we likely to see a spate of books with accompanying websites in the course of the next few years? If they were all up to the same standard as V, then this would by no means be an unwelcome development, and it might serve a useful purpose as a means of familiarising the public with hyperliterature. It might also be a safe way for commercial publishers to dip their toes in the water without risking too much. But it would be a halfway house. Hyperliterature is not the same thing as literature in print. Personally, I hope and expect that hyperliterature in its own right will soon be selling in healthy quantities, and that a good proportion of it will be sold straight from the sites of the writers that have produced it.

©Edward Picot, August 02