BAWRT 2004

Week 4 – Writing in Code

Outside my window—

No, I’m sick of saying that.

Extrafenestrally, the sounds of buzzing are as muted as the traffic now. The wasps, yellow as wallpaper, black as a critic’s heart, are still doing something, but they’re doing it lackadaisically, as if they have no hope that whatever passes for a stimulus package in the insect world will ever appear, or help them keep their paper mill afloat if it did.

But they mightn’t need paper for much longer, since there’s a new form of literature in town—electronic literature, or (since we’re short on time and have a 280 character limit in our spoken language, too), ‘e-lit’.

E-lit isn’t just the reproduction of the printed word in graphic format for the web or a computer, like a text file or, God forbid, a PDF. Nor is it reproducing written material into a document that can be read by a screenreader or ebook reader. That would be something more like a webpage, or like this post, which, as you’ll disocer as we trundle on, has no literary merit or function at all.

E-lit uses the capacity of electronic devices and remediations to produce a form of literature that can use different types of narrative. In conventional printed literature, for the most part, the narrative is linear. As you read through the text, the plot or action follows one line; beginning, middle, end, with action rising, peaking, and falling off in the ol’ Freytag Pyramid. There have been exceptions to this, and the ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ style of narrative shows one way to get around the linear model, by allowing the reader to choose where they will go next. But the mechanism is a little mechanical and can take the reader out of the story as they have to leave the created world of the text for a moment to take some action the author hasn’t in order to move the story along. But the reader then has to flip pages to get to the part of the text that corresponds to their choice, and are thus removed even more from the immersive experience.


So, some kinds of e-lit replace the page-flipping with a hyperlink. This genre of the mode is called ‘hypertext’ and is exemplified by ‘Hypertext Gardens: Delightful Vistas’ by Mark Bernstein. Hop over and click a while. I’ll be here when you get back.

While Hypertext Gardens has a multilinear narrative, you can eventually cover all the narrative’s lines and they go to a pre-determined outcome. The Ballad of Sand and Harry Soot by Stephanie Strickland is linear, but the narrative runs in circles, with hyperlinks taking you back to previous screens, and showing you text that you have seen before, but can now interpret or react to differently because of what you’ve seen before. Each piece of text and screen (taken as a unit (which we’ll call a ‘page’) now act as a motif for the entire piece. It’s the hypertext equivalent of that scourge of modern life, infinite scrolling.

Non-linear narratives like the Ballad play merry Hell with the aforementioned Freytag Pyramid. You can write a plot within the text that goes through rising action, climasx, falling action, denouement etc, but if a link can go back to a page where the reader has already been, what happens to the rising action? In a nultilinear narrative, each line can follow the Pyramid, or even the Fichtean Curve, but if the narrative can circle back on itself every page has got to cover multiple points on either graph.

The hypertext form of narrative lends itself to extremely convoluted plots. A whodunnit, for example, in which the reader is hyperlinked around to various pages and never finds out whodunnit. replacing the aforementioned Pyramid and Curve with something that could be drawn by a Spirograph or the footprint trail of a tiny, stinging insect I’ve crapped on about ad nauseam.

One type of hypertext narrative I haven’t seen, but which would be possible, would be something similar to an old system operator’s gag from the 1980’s. Each time a user wanted to change directories to find a particular file, the system would move all the files to a newly-created, random directory. The user would then have to guess where the files were, move to that directory, when the system would move the files again, creating new directories until a DISK FULL error came up and you’d be up before the head of IT the next morning explaining what the fuck you’d done. But what about a hyperlink that sent you to a random part of the whole text? You could go round in circles, or more accurately random lines on a page, until you got bored, fell over, found the meaning of life or were up before the head of IT beng asked why you hadn’t done anything to fix the DISK FULL error.

Complexity for the Hell of It

The hypertext narrative lends itself to complexity. To take this blog, for example, it could be redone as a hypertext narrative but wouldn’t be very complex, since so far there are only six posts—the first of which was put in automatically by WordPress—leading to 720 (ie, 6 factorial) permutations of narrative, though God only knows what the poor unsuspecting victim of such a thing would make out of it. By the end of this class, with 15 posts up, there’d be 1,307,674,368,000 permutations—ie, possible narratives, without reading a post twice. Let’s see Stephen King top that!

Computed Complexity

But that’s merely convolution of story, and rather cheaply achieved at that. For convolution of actual text, you could do worse than Belinda Barnet’s In the Garden of Forking Paths: Contingency, Interactivity and Play in Hypertext. Wrap your thinking gear around this:

Working from across the territory we have covered, we might say that electronic interaction ‘liberates’ us from neither the Line nor the flesh: at its most experimental, it is nothing less than reading embodied.

Barnet, B. Journal of Media Culture, Vol 1 Isu=sue 5, December 1998,


Anyway, that got me thinking about another form of electronic literature, computer generated literature. Something like that quote above had a human agency behind it, perhaps an agency of evil. But a computer cannot be evil, yet it can produce text capable of analysis, particularly if the text masquerades as poetry and there’s someone there to level their entire critical arsenal at it. I began a search for these ‘travesty generators’ as they’re called.

After two hours, I had found Travesty Generators, a website owned and operated by someone who generates poetry by computer and then takes credit for it as if it’s creative, and who is then lauded by the high-falutin’ critics she’s quoted on the home page. Apparently these things are now called ‘parody generators’, which allowed me to change my serch parameters a bit. I found the Postmodernist Generator, but that doen’t allow for input from the user. But the AI based text generator does, so let’s throw the above quote at it.

Working from across the territory we have covered, we might say that electronic interaction ‘liberates’ us from neither the Line nor the flesh: at its most experimental, it is nothing less than reading embodied.  And such is the aim of the text below, which attempts to analyse a seemingly minimal ‘sentence’ (developed in conversation with John Wilson in 2009):

{Note of comment: in both titles I have borrowed heavily from Byron Hall’s ‘Athenian Love’, chapter 4, ‘Sentence

King, A. Text created by software at Formatted by WordPress

One is as obscure as the other. I’m not calling Barnet’s article obfusatory just because I can’t understand it. I’m calling a spade a spade.

Fun, Fun, Fun!

These hypertext narratives would be fun to write. They would be fun to publish, but one place I won’t be publishing mine is on, or using, bloody WordPress. I haven’t got enough control even over this simple blog, and the complexities of linking with WordPress riding roughshod over whatever I want to do would soon see me up before the head of IT explaining why I went totally postal on WordPress’s arse and that it took forty-five paper wasps to bring me down.

(Unintentional but) Shameless Plug

Due to advancements in software, though, I could be spared that horror. Storyspace is software from Eastgate Systems Inc, which Maek Bernstein used in creating Hupertext Gardens. Unfortunately, it’s only available for the Mac, and I don’t have the wherewithal to get a Mac in order to use it, so I will have to wait for it to come out for the PC or hunt around for something similar that will run on a computer, or take a brute force approach and do a website with a hypertextual narrative. I’d say ‘Stay tuned’ but I fear it will take too long to ask that of you, so ‘Check back occasionally’ would be more polite. In the meantime, this pile of crap does have hypertext links to each chapter.

And so, we say a fond farewell to the world of hupertext narrative as kind of e-lit, and wait for the coronavirus to render all vertebrate life extinct, or something. What about that, my chitiny chums? One of a myriad possible narratives, you say? Perhaps. Evolution is nonlinear, but intelligent design isn’t. I’m quitting this post while I’m ahead.

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