Reading screens: down the paths of electronic literature

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Reading screens: down the paths of electronic literature

Claudia Ferradas Moi, Argentina

‘There she weaves by night and day

A magic web with colours gay.

She has heard a whisper say,

A curse is on her if she stay

To look down to Camelot.

She knows not
what the curse may be,

And so she weaveth steadily,

And little other care hath she,

The Lady of Shalott.

But in her web she still delights

To weave the mirror’s magic sights,

For often through the silent nights

A funeral, with plumes and lights

And mu
sic, went to Camelot:

Or when the moon was overhead,

Came two young lovers lately wed;

“I am half sick of shadows,” said

The Lady of Shalott.

She left the web, she left the loom,

She made three paces through the room,

She saw the water
lily bloom,

She s
aw the helmet and the plume,

She looked down to Camelot.

Out flew the web and floated wide;

The mirror cracked from side to side;

“The curse is come upon me,” cried

The Lady of Shalott.’

(Alfred, Lord Tennyson, ‘The Lady of Shalott’)

Over 150 years hav
e gone by since Lord Tennyson recreated the old Arthurian legend
of the Lady of Shallot in the beautiful narrative poem that bears that name. A Victorian
woman in Tennyson’s imagination, the Lady lives in seclusion inside her tower on the
Isle of Shalott,
weaving her time away as she gets a second
hand view of reality
through a mirror. Either that, or ‘the curse’. In front of her, her loom work depicts the
mimetic representation of the world of which

she has only indirect glimpses.

In a playful leap of the

imagination, I have visualised a new Lady of Shalott at
the opening of the twenty
first century. I can see the Arthurian heroine locked up in her
attic study, typing away at her keyboard

or idly scrutinising her web with the help of a

not a furry

creature but a plastic device. As in a Borgesian

labyrinth, the
concatenation of metaphors plays with coincidences: in the nineteenth century, a
Victorian poet saw the Arthurian character submissively delighting in a web that was
twice removed from realit
y. In the hypermedia environments that modern computers
can build, where words, whole texts or images are linked with the swift swipe and click
of a mouse, the new Lady of Shalott also delights in a ‘web’

and virtual reality allows
her to visit Camelot wi
thout the risk of having the curse fall upon her.

But will our contemporary, like her Victorian predecessor, grow ‘half sick of
shadows’? Will Lancelot’s ‘helmet and plume’, shining with the power of revelation,
lead her to view virtual reality critically?

And if so, what curse will come upon her?

Exploring hypertext

In the 1960s, Ted Nelson conceived of a huge electronic network to connect all the
information in the world by means of cross
referenced documents (a ‘docuverse’). He
coined the word ‘hypertex
t’ to name a tool which would create a non
sequential linking
of texts. In the same decade, both literary theory and computer science were interested
in the systematisation of textual forms that cited other texts

what Gérard Genette
(1962) referred to as

‘palimpsests’. For Genette, hypertextuality is the relationship that
links text B (the hypertext) to a previous text A (the hypotext) in a way which is not a
mere commentary. In this sense, all texts can be said to be potentially hypertextual.

The increa
sing access to personal computers, the development of interactive
technology and the advent of the internet and the World Wide Web have made
Nelson’s docuverse and his notion of hypertext a reality. In
Literary Machines

Nelson was then able to writ
e: ‘By hypertext I mean non
sequential writing

text that
branches and allows choices to the reader, best read at an interactive screen. As
popularly conceived, this is a series of text chunks connected by links which offer the
reader different pathways.’

In 1992, George P. Landow, a pioneer in the use of hypertext in higher
education, wrote a book whose title reveals the impact of hypertext within a cultural
context informed by new technologies:
Hypertext: the Convergence of Contemporary
Critical Theory
and Technology.

In this book, computer hypertext is defined as ‘text
composed of blocks of words (or images) linked electronically by multiple paths, chains
or trails in an open
ended, perpetually unfinished textuality described by the terms link,
node, ne
twork, web and path’ (p. 3).

Attracted by the challenge offered by electronic links, the American writer
Michael Joyce experimented with hypertext to write original fiction. He then conceived
of a virtual story that would never be read the same way twice:
the result was
afternoon, a story
. Hypertext fiction (or
) had been born.

As George Melrod (1994, p. 162) defines it, hyperfiction is

linear interactive
electronic literature. Potentially, the next stage of evolution for storytelling, wher
e text is
made of light instead of ink, where you help the author shape the story, and where you
never read he same novel the same way twice’. Hyperfiction can only be read on a
computer screen. Readers decide where to go next by consulting the titles of l
passages or may let the links between windows or ‘lexias’ (a term used by Roland
Barthes, applied in Landow, 1992) take them to an unknown place in the textual
geography. They can choose whether to click on a word, on an arrow that takes them
rds or forwards, on YES and NO buttons… or simply press ‘ENTER’, which is
just like ‘turning the page’.

The result is a kind of narrative collage, a textual
kaleidoscope in which the story is cut into fragments and is constantly changing. If it’s a
bit di
sorienting, that’s part of the idea. Instead of laying out a straight path, hyperfictions
set you down in a maze, give you a compass, then let you decide where to go next’

(Melrod, 1994, p. 163).

By definition, hyperfiction is strikingly open
ended. This e
mpowers the reader,
who is not only able to make decisions such as where to go next or when to ‘put an end
to the story’ but is in control of the process of appropriation (the interaction with the text
that leads the reader to ‘own’ a certain reading of th
e text) in ways which are hard to
achieve within print technology.

Michael Joyce reflects on this in an introductory lexia in his
afternoon, a story


Closure is, as in any fiction, a suspect quality, although here it is made
manifest. Wh
en a story no longer progresses, or when it cycles, or when you
tire of the paths, the experience of reading it ends. Even so, there are likely
to be more opportunities than you think there are at first. A word which
doesn’t yield the first time you read a

section may take you elsewhere if you
choose it when you encounter the section again; and sometimes what
seems a loop, like memory, heads off again in another direction.

There is no simple way to say this.’

Where and how to put an end to a story must

always have been one of the main
preoccupations of a writer, and it is certainly the focus of the metaliterary concern
which pervades the self
referential novel of the last few decades. Hypertext unveils the
artificiality of closure, revealing not only th
e writer’s but the reader’s role in the creation
of that artifice, as well as the arbitrary nature of the paths that may lead to it.

Hyperfiction is a question of texture, or, as Mary
Kim Arnold (1993)

expressed it, ‘Words that yield to the touch’. B
ut what words will ‘yield’ if the reader
clicks on them? Joyce’s explanation in
afternoon, a story

seems to have established
the metaphor:


I haven’t indicated what words yield, but they are usually ones which have

Once again, i
t is the reader who decides which words ‘have texture’, which bear
a tempting quality... and wherever the reader decides to click, he or she is unlikely to
be disappointed. ‘The nomadic movement of ideas is made effortless by the electronic
medium that mak
es it easy to cross borders (or erase them) with the swipe of a mouse,
carrying as much of the world as you will on the etched arrow of light that makes up a
cursor. [...] Each iteration “breathes life into a narrative of possibilities,” as Jane

Douglas says of hypertext fiction, so that, in the ‘third or fourth encounter
with the same place, the immediate encounter remains the same as the first, [but] what
changes is [our] understanding’” (Joyce, 1995, p. 3).

Reconfiguring reading

The reader we
aves the web of narrative possibilities, aware of the power of choice. He
or she advances, down the labyrinth of ‘forking paths’ that Borges (1941) once
imagined, sometimes at a loss, sometimes helped by the map, chart, tree
map or
outline of links between

lexias which the author may have provided. But no matter how
s/he chooses to do it, the reading experience is a challenge to the stability of the
traditional concepts of text, author and reader.

Delany and Landow (1991, p. 3) point out that

so long as te
xt was married to a
physical media [sic], readers and writers took for granted three crucial attributes: that
the text was
linear, bounded and fixed
. Generations of scholars and authors
internalized these qualities as the rules of thought, and they had per
vasive social
consequences. We can define

as the use of the computer to transcend the
linear, bounded and fixed qualities of the traditional written text.’ Devoid of paper,
tablet, scroll, book... the text becomes virtual, transient. There is no
stable object
holding the entire text; all the reader can see is one block of text at a time and explore
the electronic links that connect that lexia to others: a variable textual structure that lies
behind the blocks and can be represented on screen as a
tree diagram, a web, a
network... There is no fixed way out of the labyrinth: you build it as you choose your
way down the forking paths.

If hypertext has changed the nature of text, it has also disclosed the nature of
underlying reading operations. True,

the reader may apply perfectly conventional
reading habits in each lexia, but, as Delany and Landow (1991, p. 4) believe,
hypertext] can also provide a revelation, by making visible and explicit mental
processes that have always been part of the total e
xperience of reading. For the text as
the reader


as opposed to the physical text objectified in the book

had to be linear, bounded or fixed. A reader could jump to the last page to see how a
story ended; could think of relevant passag
es in other works; could re
order texts by
cutting and pasting. Still, the stubborn materiality of the text constrained such

Hypertext, then, is the virtual space where modern literary criticism and
pedagogy meet, as the active reader in the
centred classroom becomes a
reality rather than a desideratum. The reader as

producer of the text’

advocated by
Barthes (1970), the active reader of Umberto Eco’s open work (1962), the Derridean
emphasis upon discontinuity and decentring (Derrida,

1967), all find concrete
realisation in hyperfiction. So does Bakhtin’s conception of dialogism and multivocality
(1984), for ‘hypertext does not permit a tyrannical, univocal voice. Rather, the voice is

always that distilled from the combined experience
of the momentary focus, the lexia
one presently reads, and the continually forming narrative of one’s reading path.’
(Landow, 1992, p. 11)

Reconfiguring education

All this has far
reaching implications for education in general and for literary education
in particular. The dialogical interaction between reader and text which allows each
reader to construct ‘the meaning of the text afresh’ (Pulverness, 1996) has been (and
many times still is) veiled by layers of respect for the mythical authority of writers
, critics
and literature teachers. Even in classrooms where the existence of multiple readings is
acknowledged, there is often an underlying belief in the superiority of the teacher’s
learned reading. Hyperfiction removes the veil: not only does it offer m
ultiple readings,
but multiple texts (or architectural realisations of text). This simply means that no
reading (not even the teacher’s!) can be considered the ‘correct’ one, as the text itself
is not fixed and it literally grows with every reading.

fiction readers are aware of the fact that they are opening the textual track
as they advance. As they sit in front of the computer, they are encouraged to fill in
‘indeterminacy gaps’ (Iser, 1971) in the information as they read (or rather, navigate)
text. Though they cannot change the author’s work, they can discover multiple
combinations and can actually type notes on a ‘notepad’ as they read, responding to
the information gaps in the text. The boundaries between reader and writer are then
blurred an
d the authority of the authorial voice is partially transferred to the reader. The
reader activates procedural skills to make sense not only of discourse (Widdowson in
Brumfit and Carter, 1985) but of the constructive web behind it.

Hyperfiction in the EF
L class

What contributions can this kind of literature make to a learner
centred classroom
where literature is integrated with the teaching of English as a foreign language? How
can the reading experience be integrated with writing and oral activities that

meaningful? What materials can teachers and students develop using hypertext
programs and applications?

At present, no hyperfiction materials seem to be available to suit the needs of EFL
students whose standard of English is not considerably
advanced. Pilot experiences in
the use of hyperfiction with advanced EFL students (Ferradas Moi, 1998) suggest a
few preliminary conclusions:

carefully planned
computer activity
is needed to acquaint the reader with
the necessary information and skills

required to approach the new textual form
(especially with groups who are not yet comfortable with the use of computers)


based activity

can be frustrating: this is perhaps unavoidable
when a new format is encountered, but it also means the te
acher may want to
select a hypertext which resembles traditional stories to some extent rather
than a more radically ‘avant
garde’ one

computer activity

can become a true negotiation between different
readers as to what ‘the text’ means: the teac
her or workshop co
ordinator can
count on
information and opinion gaps

that will encourage involvement and
give rise to a number of meaningful language activities

this also encourages
learner autonomy
: hyperfiction reading involves
commitment on the part o
f the students. They are responsible for their own
reading, as they will have to retell their version and support their views with
constant references to the reading they have ‘saved’

the lack of a ‘correct’ version may be particularly encouraging for the

insecure students, who feel free to express their views

above all, reading hyperfiction and writing comments as the reader advances
contributes to the development of
metacognitive strategies
: the learner is
encouraged to reflect upon his or her own
hypotheses and interpretive
procedures and this process raises awareness of the reader’s expectations,
reading style, the affective factors at play in the building of the textual web and
the way this compares to the procedures used by others

according to t
he participants, as they read hyperfiction at home, the
experience became even more exciting as they thought of the next meeting
with the other members of the group: it seems that coming to terms with the
text involves discussing it with other readers (whi
ch ensures

collaborative learning

However, further research needs to be done to corroborate the preliminary conclusions
listed above and explore their implications. In particular, it is necessary to investigate
whether these sta
tements apply to the needs of EFL students at lower levels of

Apart from its value concerning awareness
raising, hyperfiction can lead to
meaningful classroom activities, such as:

play activities (dialogues between characters in the diffe
rent ‘versions’)

the meaningful retelling of a student’s reading

asking the others to provide
‘closure’ and then comparing their suggestions to the ending the student

highly motivating writing tasks, such as descriptions of one character as see
by different readers, or a series of letters (or e
mails) from one character to
another, where a number of misunderstandings will be produced by the fact
that characters have different information in each case.

It can also prove enlightening to surf thro
ugh an online hypernovel, Geoff Ryman’s

, and then compare it to its printed version. Students may then
want to read Chris Mitchell’s review for
Spike Magazine (1998))

available at
, to

see whether they agree with the critic’s
views and then e
mail their opinions to him. What Mitchell writes may remind the
reader of several observation made

‘253 refers to the number of passengers which a London Underground tube
train can hold, including the driver. The novel follows the pattern of describing
each of the passengers on board in exactly 253 words, including their outward
appearance and th
eir internal thoughts.

With the electronic version, the reader can choose any passenger from which
to begin reading and then follow how that character interacts with the other
tube travellers by clicking the links provided. It's a curiously addictive form

storytelling, relying both on the illusion that the reader is shaping the story
through choosing which links to follow, and the voyeuristic joy of finding out
what people really think on the tube.

However, much of this joy is lost in the printed versi
on precisely because there
are no links. … With the absence of any real character interaction, this quickly
becomes tedious. As Ryman himself admits in the introduction, “Nothing
exciting happens in this novel. It is ideal fare for invalids”.’

critical technological literacy

Can hypertext
writing programs be used for students to develop their own stories in
class? Experimentally, I observed a class of five upper intermediate EFL students in
Buenos Aires give that kind of program a try. Initiall
y, we were worried by the fact that
the task of writing a short hyperfiction piece involved the use of a hypertext writing
program (Eastgate Systems’

). However, students took no time at all to
learn how to use the basic functions of the program
. They showed an exploratory
learning mode and those with better PC skills collaborated with the others, who, in turn,
paid more attention to editing, though content rather than accuracy was the focus of
students’ attention.

When they evaluated the experi
ence, students found it motivating and did not
think the program was an obstacle. According to the assessment interview at the end
of the project, they had found the activity ‘original’ and ‘challenging’. However, they had
also found it time
consuming and
the results were disappointingly simple, with very few
links except for those that led the reader down parallel lines in a forking structure.

The students took the whole idea as a game and seemed to enjoy it. They even
wanted to go on working outside clas
s, which means that if we could find ways of
training students to use the hypertext program and give them enough time, we could
begin to throw light on some of their hyper
reading and hyper
writing operations.

In fact, simple wordprocessors can be used tod
ay to establish links from one
word to another or from one text to another. This can help students write their own
creative hypertextual pieces or even develop critical insights into other texts they have
read by establishing intertextual relationships bet
ween texts or with their own
comments. These can then be uploaded on to a class web page for other readers to

These are just early attempts to develop the literacies demanded by new
technologies. As educators, we should bear in mind that even thoug
h we may hail the
advent of forms of technology that contribute to the achievement of a more democratic,
centred classroom, we must be aware of the implications this may have in the
particular context in which we teach and learn, so I expect furthe
r studies to consider
some of the questions hyperfiction raises:

How satisfying is the reading of a permanently inconclusive work? Can the
frustration of finding oneself in the same lexia again and again be overcome
with considerations on how the lexia can

be interpreted in its new occurrence?

To what extent is the reader free to choose where he or she is going? How
much manipulation on the part of the author is there when he or she
determines where links lead? Can this help us become aware of the
ive potential of hypermedia products on the internet?

Does hyperfiction really challenge our concept of narrative? Can we do away
with the narrative line, or do we put the chunks together, jigsaw
puzzle style,
only to reconstruct some form of narrative lin

What possibilities does hypertext offer for the development of new
pedagogical practices and the design of innovative materials?

Can hypertext help us throw light on the metacognitive processes involved in

How democratic is a form that depends
not only on the access to computer
hardware and software but on the necessary ‘know
how’, especially in
countries where access and ‘know
how’ are still the privilege of a few? Does
this contribute to McLuhan’s global village or to a world whose distributio
n of
power (and empowering knowledge) is becoming more and more unfair?

Will screens ever replace books? How will a ‘reading artefact’ look, feel,
smell... in years to come? And how is that likely to change our perception of
the world in general?

How will
hypertext negotiate its relationship with images and audience in
attractive multimedia environments such as the internet?

Hyperwriting can help students reflect on and assess the new technologies, thus
contributing to the development of critical technolog
ical literacy.

‘The credibility of
designers / authors…is continually open for question and challenge by hyperreaders…
To carry out such assessments, readers should be discouraged from a simple
consumer orientation to the Web, to learn to distinguish simpl
e information from
, which… implies a host of other assumptions and values; and to resist and
suspect the seductive character of multimedia Web design […] A crucial aspect of
developing this capacity for critical hyperreading is, I sugges
t, to learn about the
mechanics of Web design / authoring itself.’ (Burbules, 1998, p. 118)

These are, of course, early steps in the development of new forms of textuality which
pose challenges to readers, writers and educators alike. We have started weav
ing a
virtual web, but must try to remember that ‘you cannot, with the Web, go where no one
has gone before’ (Tchudi, 2000). Like the Lady of Shallot, we must take our boat and
sail down to Camelot ourselves if the elusive fascination of the virtual is to
help us
become aware of our place in the realm of the actual. Otherwise, we may get caught in
a Web that others weave for us

and the postmodern curse will fall upon us.

N.B. Sections of this paper were published in the following articles:

Explorations in Textual Texture
IATEFL Literature and Cultural Studies SIG

, spring / summer 2002

reading: facing the challenge of electronic literature. In
Folio 7.1
, MATSDA, U.K., January

Further considerations on hypertext and m
aterials design, with details on the experiences
described in the paper, can be found in: Hyperfiction: Explorations in Textual Texture. In
Tomlinson, B. (ed.)
Issues in Materials Development for Language Teaching
, Continuum, UK


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