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Previously in In Media Res:

Out of Context, by Wen Stephenson (June 11, 1997)
What happens when the media become our reality? It's a question cyberjournalists ought to ask themselves.

You Say You Want a Revolution?, by Wen Stephenson (April 2, 1997)
On "push," the digital nation, and Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Bonfire of the Pieties, by Wen Stephenson (March 5, 1997)
In Virtuous Reality, Jon Katz calls for a truce in the new-media culture wars. So why is he fanning the flames?

See other related features in Digital Culture and In Media Res.

Postmodern American Fiction
W.W. Norton's PMAF Web site includes excerpts from the hypertext works "I Have Said Nothing" (1993), by J. Yellowlees Douglas, and afternoon, a story, (1990) by Michael Joyce. Each print copy of Postmodern American Fiction contains a unique password allowing access to the hypertext selections.
Over the Edge
December 4, 1997

Two books, literature anthologies, rest side by side here on my desk. Oh, the stories they tell. Only a decade separates them -- one was published in 1986, the other this past fall -- but the distance between them is actually far greater. It is a chasm, really.

nortbk1 picture The older of the two books, with Whistler's impressionistic Old Battersea Bridge gracing the cover, is my dog-eared and yellowing paperback copy of The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Vol. 2, edited by M. H. Abrams. Its first edition published in 1962, this anthology -- a staple of college English courses -- begins with Blake in the 1780s and moves through the Romantic, Victorian, and Modernist periods, straight on up, as though with an air of inevitability, to the more recent additions of Doris Lessing, Tom Stoppard, and Seamus Heaney in the 1980s. This copy has seen some heavy use -- the spine has buckled, my underlinings and marginalia have bled through a surprisingly large percentage of the 2,578 onion-skin pages. It's a volume I find myself returning to, as though to revisit the place where something irretrievably lost was last seen.

The new book is also a Norton anthology, titled Postmodern American Fiction. Its garish cover -- with Roger Brown's ironic, cartoonish painting Skylab by Minicam (1979) on a black background -- is like an assertion of generational succession: "I'm here to displace you," it seems to say to the staid older volume. Its aim, according to the back-cover copy, is "to do full justice" -- in a self-consciously nonlinear, nonchronological way -- "to the vast range of American innovation in fiction writing since 1945." The appearance of a Norton anthology titled Postmodern American Fiction -- featuring works (some previously unanthologized) by the likes of William S. Burroughs, Norman Mailer, Kurt Vonnegut, Thomas Pynchon, John Barth, Donald Barthelme, William Gass, Toni Morrison, Don DeLillo, Ishmael Reed, and Bobbie Ann Mason, along with such younger contemporaries as Laurie Anderson, William Gibson, Carole Maso, Douglas Coupland, and David Foster Wallace, to name but a few -- is significant enough. But this volume calls attention to itself in another way: it takes a flying leap into cyberspace.

nortbk2 picture Not only is this the first Norton anthology (perhaps the first print anthology ever) to include examples of hypertext fiction, it is also the first time a Norton anthology has pointed to a companion Web site where expanded excerpts of literary works created for a digital medium can be explored. It's a forward looking gesture on Norton's part, demonstrating that the Web has more to offer book publishers than merely new ways to market their products -- it can actually extend and enhance the contents of a printed work. Norton's PMAF Web site, in fact, should not be seen so much as a companion or supplement to the book as an essential, integral part of it.

What could be less "postmodern" than a Norton anthology, with all its aura of tradition and authority? And what could be more postmodern -- and thus, less "Norton" -- than hypertext fiction, with its aura of a digital avant-garde and its explicit aim to subvert the hierarchies of literary publishing, not just by moving from print to computer screen but especially by challenging the traditional roles of author and reader that for centuries were -- and generally still are -- taken for granted? Finally, what could better represent the awkward motions through which traditional literary publishers find themselves going in these last few years of the millennium than the sight of the little white sticker on the inside back cover of Postmodern American Fiction that reads "www.wwnorton.com/pmaf" and that provides a "single-user password"? You've come a long way, baby. But this is where the story begins.

*     *     *

The term "postmodern" is, of course, notoriously difficult to pin down in any satisfactory way, forced as it is to do double duty both as a historical period (namely, that of "postmodernity," roughly 1945 to the present) and as a rather incoherent aesthetic movement (or, if not anything quite so organized, then at least a set of ideas or recognizable stylistic traits). In historical terms, it's fairly easy to identify the characteristics of postmodernity, but pinning down the "postmodern" as an aesthetic or literary movement is considerably more difficult. In their introduction, the editors of the new Norton anthology -- Paula Geyh, Fred G. Leebron, and Andrew Levy -- point out the term's inherent "contingency and contradictions," and after quickly running through several divergent groups of writers and styles of writing that can lay some claim to the postmodern badge, they are forced to conclude, "The history of postmodern American fiction belongs to those authors who, in any idiom and for any audience, for brief passages or for entire careers, shared a new cultural sensibility as a response to an altered world." Starting from a position in which "postmodern" means virtually everything and, thus, practically nothing, the volume goes on to illustrate inadvertently just how difficult defining something called "Postmodern American Fiction" can be.

If there is one thing that does seem to tie postmodernism together, one thing that almost everyone would agree upon as being representatively "postmodern," it is the enormous amount of theorizing, or "critical theory," produced by academic literary critics over the past thirty years. So perhaps it should come as little surprise that Postmodern American Fiction, after presenting a wide range of literary works grouped thematically in six sections ("Breaking the Frame," "Fact Meets Fiction," "Popular Culture and High Culture Collide," "Revising Tradition," "Revisiting History," and "Technoculture") concludes with a lengthy seventh section titled "A Casebook of Postmodern Theory." This theoretical section is placed -- with respectful lipservice having been paid to the primacy of the fiction over the critical theory -- at the end of the volume. But it might as well have been placed at the beginning: in light of the large portion of the anthology's introduction (roughly half) devoted to mapping out the contours of "postmodern theory," one quickly realizes that the theory section is the only thing holding the anthology together. You sense that the literary works themselves would spin off in their own directions without the enforced theoretical frameworks, as though each piece of fiction exerts a kind of centrifugal force propelling it outward and away from restricting categories, no matter how "contingent" and "contradictory."

Or, I should say, such is the case until you reach the two excerpts, or samples, from the hypertext works "I Have Said Nothing" (1993), by J. Yellowlees Douglas, and afternoon, a story (1990), by Michael Joyce, which is probably the most celebrated work of hypertext fiction yet produced. What struck me -- apart from the strangeness of seeing hypertext fiction in a bound book -- was how comfortably, almost effortlessly, these selections by Douglas and Joyce fit into the setting of this anthology. Whereas many of the other fiction selections seem to have been enlisted (or conscripted) into the service of the critical theory, the hypertext fiction appears right at home, a most enthusiastic recruit. Appearing at the very end of the "Technoculture" section, just before the "Casebook," it serves as the perfect bridge between the first part of the anthology, the individual literary works, and the final, theoretical part. In fact, the hypertext selections may be the ideal connective tissue between the practice of fiction and the theorizing of it (and thus, perhaps, the most "postmodern" thing in the book), because it is itself almost purely a theoretical exercise.

Computer technology, as the anthology's editors explain, is being used to assert a "realignment of the relationship between reader and writer." Introducing the basic concept underlying hypertext fiction, they go on to write, "The advent of electronic textual forms represents a potentially historic transformation of literature, one where the reader's self-guided tour through a series of linked and interrelated 'lexias' (or blocks of text) departs sharply from the model of a single, linear narrative compelled by the printed page." It is a moment of (dare I say it?) postmodern irony, then, when a few (print) pages later you are confronted by two examples of ... hypertext fiction. By necessity, as it exists on the printed page -- out of its natural habitat, stripped of its essential nonlinear, interactive characteristics -- hypertext fiction becomes an abstraction, like a two-dimensional representation of a 3-D object. It is a signifier (to use the proper jargon) -- not the thing itself. Now, granted, it's a fairly intriguing, strangely titillating signifier. Much like a trailer for a movie, the excerpted "lexias," or textual chunks, are presented on the page in what appears to be more or less a linear, sequential format -- but in truth, like the quick-cut frames of the trailer, they are disconnected fragments, more teasers than anything you could be expected to respond to as a reader. These printed words are only an advertisement (a favorite postmodern signifier) -- the point is that you're supposed to go check out the expanded excerpts on the Web.

The problem, though, is that even once you've reached the Web site, what you find is still not the real McCoy. As it turns out, Web designers are currently unable to replicate the interface and underlying system of linking unique to each of these works, which Douglas and Joyce created using the Storyspace authoring tool and which were intended to be read offline, not through a Web browser. Therefore, as Douglas puts it, on the Web she has had to settle for providing "some rough approximations of the Storyspace reader interface (and, as you'd expect of an excerpt, far fewer links or possibilities for navigation than exist in the original.)" As a result, a text that would already be somewhat mystifying and disorienting to the first-time reader is further complicated by the realization that it isn't even a faithful representation of the thing itself. Joyce has perhaps done a more elegant and satisfying job of translating afternoon onto the Web (with some help from the programmer Justin Edelson), but the effect is ultimately the same. You are always conscious that the user interface is an ersatz one, and that the links do not function precisely as they do in the original. (Even here, it's worth noting, you are haunted by that stubborn ghost, the controlling authorial imagination.) Instead, aware of the importance of interface design in any work of interactive or multimedia art, you are left with only an idea, a "rough approximation," of what the experience ought to be like.

Maybe, in the end, this is fitting. As one who has spent considerable time with the full version of Joyce's afternoon -- and with his more recent Twilight: A Symphony (1996) -- I keep coming back to the same conclusion: namely, that the most interesting thing about these works is the theory that inspires them rather than anything that takes place within the text itself. The deeper you go into one of these works the more you realize that the voices overheard are those of literature caught in an endless loop, talking to itself. You listen and watch as it's all played out before you -- the disintegration of story, of the very possibility of narrative, into self-enthralled theoretical musing. It's hypnotic in a way, weirdly compelling -- at least for a while, until you realize it leads nowhere, that there are no characters, only ideas, no story, only a theory of what "story" in a hypertext setting might be, that it's all an experiment, and that you, the reader, are the lab animal.

*     *     *

The editors of Postmodern American Fiction echo a common claim made for late-twentieth century art when they write, "In the age of television, the automobile, the telephone, and the computer, the fascination of contemporary fiction writers with technology might be considered social realism." Michael Joyce has said that his hypertext fiction aims not just to represent but to embody the individual's fragmented, chaotic, and essentially nonlinear experience of postmodernity. We wander haphazardly through a work of fiction like afternoon, Joyce might say, much as we wander though our own lives, in search of something -- a self, a certainty, a plot -- that we can hold onto as we approach death, which is the only possible end of the story. The only certainty -- as it happens -- is that the story will loop back on itself. The only thing we can hold onto is the mirrored image, the embodiment, of our confusion.

"And yet," I want to say. And yet ... Isn't it possible to tell stories, in any medium -- whether via film, the stage, the computer, or the printed page -- that grapple with postmodernity without actually having to embody the idea of postmodernity in their form? Can't a more or less "traditional" narrative -- one written for print and thus having a beginning, middle, and end, even if all the while toying with those concepts and questioning them -- suggest what it's like to be postmodern? Obviously, for many people the answer is yes. In fact, the editors of the PMAF anthology have gone to a great deal of trouble to collect dozens of works that they apparently agree succeed in doing just that. But at the same time they have given in to the particularly postmodern temptation to place abstraction and theory ahead of storytelling. Nothing exemplifies this decision more than the inclusion of hypertext fiction.

All of which leads me to a rather large and, admittedly, abstract question. Today's critics talk a lot about the responsibilities of literature. At what point is it the responsibility of art to try to make sense of, rather than merely embody, the confusion around it?

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    Wen Stephenson is editorial director of The Atlantic's New Media department.

    Copyright © 1997 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
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