The Unfixed Path - hyperliterature and the experience of reading on the Web

Originally published in the PN Review, September-October 2002

When fiction-writers set up their own websites, their first impulse is often to turn their short stories and novels into web-pages, without making any particular attempt to adapt them to the new medium. The results, regardless of the quality of the writing, tend to be fairly unreadable. Unrelieved texts of any substantial length are much more difficult to assimilate from the Web than they are from the printed page; and there are a number of reasons why this is the case.

For one thing, text on the Web tends not to have the available display-area all to itself. We are used to reading our novels and stories in books without any clutter in the margins, and with only minimal clutter (page numbers and headings) at the top and bottom of each page. Web-pages, on the other hand, are usually displayed in a browser "window", where the contents of the web-pages themselves only occupy about two-thirds of the available screen-space, sandwiched between layers of toolbars. When we read a book, the writing on the pages in front of us is the only thing to lay any claim on our attention, until we put the book down or look up from it. But on the Web, the presence of this additional paraphernalia is a constant reminder that we have other options.

Secondly, the length of a piece of text on the Web is much harder to determine than in print. This factor should not be underestimated. When we pick up a book we immediately get an impression of how long it is, from its thickness and the size of the print on its pages. All the same, it is a rare reader who does not turn to the end, at some stage, to check exactly how many pages the book contains, and make a quick mental calculation of how long it will take to finish. We do the same with individual chapters and short stories. But as soon as a Web page disappears off the bottom of the computer screen, so that the only way of getting to the foot of it is by using the scroll-bar on the right-hand side, its length becomes very difficult to judge with any precision. The effect of this is to make us feel inclined to lose patience with the text, because we're unsure how long it will take to read. Unless it holds our attention with an iron grip, we feel tempted either to "skim" or abandon it.

Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, the process by which we arrive at any particular web-page is usually quite different from the process by which we arrive at a particular page in a book, and this affects our expectations and behaviour when we get there. Forays onto the Web are usually exploratory in nature. We tend to go to the Web not with a fixed destination in mind, but with the idea that we want to find something, and this dictates the way in which we travel from page to page.

Let us suppose, for example, that we were looking for literary fiction on the Internet. The usual method would be to start with one of the big search-engines, such as Yahoo, and type "literary fiction" into the search page. We would then be presented with a list of query-results, and we would have to decide whether they contained any likely-looking material, or whether we should go back to the first page and redefine the query.

At some stage - perhaps after having rephrased the initial question several times - we would have to start clicking on links and seeing where they took us. This is where the guessing starts. There is now such a wealth of material on the Web that almost any search, no matter how carefully phrased, is likely to produce far more material than we will ever have time to explore; and much of this material, on closer examination, will probably turn out to be irrelevant to our real requirements. So we have to try to guess which links are likely to be useful, and which ones are not. This in turn gives rise to a particular frame of mind, in which the results of our choices are always regarded as provisional and temporary. We visit particular websites not because those are the websites we really want to visit, but because they are the ones to which we happen to have found our way. We tend to regard them as stepping-stones to somewhere else, rather than ends in themselves. Every website is an intersection or a portal rather than a terminus.

Navigation on the Web, then, is often a matter of guesswork and intuition, and because of this the business of exploring the Web can sometimes be extremely frustrating. Anybody who has "websurfed" to any extent will have had at least one session which was a complete waste of time - nothing but one false turning after another, leading to one blind alley after another. Yet the fact that we never quite know where we are going on the Web is not by any means a purely negative thing. Part of the fascination of the Web lies in its ability to surprize us - to carry us off very rapidly in completely unexpected directions.

In preparing this article, I tried the experiment of looking on the Yahoo search engine for "literary fiction", and found myself, only a few clicks later, browsing a site that belonged to the Imperial War Museum. My initial query produced lists of links under three headings: web-site categories, web site matches and news stories. I chose the first web-category, which was labelled "Arts > Humanities > Literature > Authors > Literary Fiction", and this brought me to an alphabetical list of 4058 authors. Scrolling down the list, I happened to notice the name of Mervyn Peake, so I clicked it. Up came a list of eleven further links, all to do with Peake. One of them was headed "Mervyn Peake: The War Drawings"; and following this, I found myself looking at reproductions of the work he did as an official war artist during the Second World War. It turned out, after a few more clicks, that this online exhibition was one of a number hosted by the Imperial War Museum.

As this example shows, reading on the Web is quite a different activity from reading a conventional work in print, such as a novel or an essay. In a novel or an essay we follow a path laid down by the author, whereas on the Web we have to make our paths for ourselves. Of course, there is no particular reason why surfing the web should be like reading a book: the Web wasn't designed as a single narrative, but as a means of storing and retrieving information. Its proper equivalent is not a book but a library, and what we are doing as we hop from one website to another is not reading in a concerted way, but metaphorically wandering up and down the library aisles, glancing first at one book and then another.

But to some extent the library metaphor is a misleading one, because the library functions not as a medium but as a resource, whereas the Web is both. The purpose of a library is to bring together as many books as possible in one place, in order to give us the widest possible choice of reading-matter. Once we have chosen a book, the library ceases to influence us: it does not affect the way in which we read. The act of withdrawing a book from the library is symbolic in this respect: it signifies that once a choice has been made the library becomes unimportant until we need to make another one.

The Web is like a library, in that it presents us with an enormous diversity of material from which to choose; but unlike a library, it stays with us after the choice is made, and influences the way in which we digest our chosen reading-matter. Books in a library may refer to one another, but they do not communicate in any functional sense. Printed books are designed as discrete packages, self-sufficient, intended to be read in isolation from one another. On the Web, however, connections between one text and another are built-in, in the form of hyperlinks. This is one of the design principles on which the Web was founded. If text A makes a reference to text B, this reference takes the form of a hyperlink, so that if readers of the first text want to check the second, all they have to do is click the link and it will be presented to them.

What tends to happen when you click a link in this way, however, is not just one detour away from your starting-point, but a whole series of them, piling up on each other until the starting-point often gets lost or forgotten altogether. Text A refers to text B, so we click the hyperlink to look at text B, only to find that text B refers to text C, text C to text D, and so on. Many readers, when they first start to use the Web, find this one of its most irritating features, because it breaks up all sense of continuity - it makes it very difficult to read all the way from the beginning to the end of a particular text without being distracted. But after a while, as we become acclimatised to the Web environment, our expectations change and we begin to read hypertexts in a different way from printed books.

To present a long narrative on the Web as a single strip of unrelieved text is to work against the medium rather than with it. The alternative is to write in a new way - hyperliterature. One example of this is a short story called "Girl/Birth/Water/Death" by the American writer Martha Conway. Each section of the story is a couple of hundred words long, and at the end of each section we are presented with choices: we can click on a button marked "Girl" or a button marked "Water" at the end of the first one; later the choices change to "Girl" and "Death", or "Water" and "Death", or "Death" and "Birth" - various combinations, that is to say, of the words in the title of the story. Each part being relatively short, we never feel bogged down. The experience of browsing through the story is disarmingly similar to the experience of browsing the web at large. We are not required to stop hopping around and settle down to some serious reading: we read the story by a process of hopping around. And since the story is beautifully written, it draws us in. It is quite difficult to quit before the end.

In some ways the narrative here is a fairly conventional one. The narrative voice remains the same throughout: third-person, speaking in the present tense. There is also a chronological progression from the beginning of the story to its end. We start with the story's main character, Laura, as a little girl, standing on a springboard above a swimming-pool, watched by her parents and her brother, trying to make up her mind whether or not to jump into the water. We end with Laura as a grown woman, giving birth to her first baby. The story has a fixed beginning and a fixed end. There are also several definite stages in between, which we seem to come across in more-or-less the same order whichever route through the story we choose. We see Laura as an older girl at a second swimming pool. Then we see her as a student on a visit to Germany. We learn that her brother has had a fall at the poolside and damaged his brain, freezing his mental development into permanent childhood.

Obviously the main point of departure from conventional narrative is that the middle sections can be read in different sequences. At the end of each, we are presented not merely with the start of the next, but with two or three options from which to choose - an effect which it would be impossible to duplicate in a conventional printed format. Because of this fundamental difference in design there is a corresponding change in the reading experience. The connections between one section and the next, because they are connections which we have made ourselves, become exploratory and provisional. The chronological movement of the story is still forward, but it seems to unfold in a series of eddies rather than a straight line or a well-defined path. The various stages of the narrative are linked by a process of association, in the same way that one memory calls up another when we are thinking about the past, or one scene suggests another in a dream. And because the chronological sequence is less emphatic than it would be in a conventional narrative, we notice other links between the sections more readily. Conway uses certain sensory images over and over again - falling through the air into wetness, or falling onto a hard surface, the difference between a hard surface and a yielding one, and the feeling of the sun warming one's back. The idea of taking the plunge is central to the story - plunging as Laura does at the beginning, from a diving-board into the water, or as her brother does from a balcony onto the poolside, or in the figurative sense, as she does when she takes the plunge into becoming pregnant and later has to go through with the experience of giving birth. There is nothing particularly unconventional about any of these themes and images, but they catch our attention more readily because we are less concerned with chronological development than we would be in a linear narrative.

There are many different ways of writing hyperliterature, but this story suggests some of the most important features of the genre. Firstly, it cannot be fully reproduced in print form. Secondly, it has been broken up into a number of short sections rather than presented as a single strip of "flat" text. Thirdly, these sections can be read in a variety of ways: the connections between them are not fixed but flexible, and the narrative sequence is therefore not linear but forked. For this reason, fourthly, we are encouraged to read the story in a different way. We do not feel that we are following a fixed path which has been predefined by the author. What we feel instead is that we are choosing one path from a number of possible alternatives. Whether this form of reading and writing is better or worse than the form traditionally associated with print is open to debate. Perhaps the question is nonsensical. But hyperliterature certainly presents us with a new alternative, and it is an alternative which seems particularly well-suited to the demands and possibilities of the computerised medium.


"Mervyn Peake: The War Drawings"

"Girl/Birth/Water/Death" by Martha Conway