Off the page
Robert Coover is leading a literary revolution that eschews
pen and paper for keyboard and mouse
by Rebecca Dorr
When Brown University professor and William Faulkner
Award-winning author Robert Coover began teaching writing on computers, the
World Wide Web did not exist. Heck, computers were altogether different beasts
-- students had to huddle around one enormous desktop model in order to read
and discuss stories written by fellow classmates. Even then, Brown and Coover
were at the forefront of a literary movement based upon a new medium -- the
Now, Coover's classes work in the school's multi-media lab with individual
work stations on high-tech machines. But, as writers who continue to experiment
with literature on the computer, these students wrestle with the same
conceptual constraints that hounded Coover's very first class of electronic
writers: How will literature be affected by its move to the computer world?
One of the answers to that question involves something most of us are familiar
with in someway -- a new, reader-influenced way of story-reading. Somewhere in
our attics or messily shelved rows of books, many of us have at least one copy
of The Mystery of Chimney Rock or some other Choose Your Own Adventure
book. Those stories were written with a built-in series of variations on a
particular plot. The decision-making of each sticky-fingered reader created
changing versions of the tale. To jump to page 34 instead of 87 meant that Joey
would get caught using a calculator on his math exam rather than get away with
it, thus altering the plot and the experience of the story.
Today this format is used by children and adults of all ages, only without the
traditional book -- a computer and monitor have taken its place. On the Web,
instead of manipulating pages, readers manipulate hypertext documents. (When
you type "http" at the beginning of a Web address, that's short for "hypertext
transfer protocol," and what you are telling the computer is that hypertext is
the language and space within which the things you want to see lie.) So, using
hypertext, instead of turning to a new page based on a number, a new page is
chosen by clicking on hotlinks -- a highlighted word or button on-screen. Often
thought of as a mere resource for fact-finding, the Web is fast becoming a
place where cutting-edge authors and poets can create literature using
hypertext as a whole new set of tools -- with a whole new set of problems.
A traditional book is generally read from beginning to end, but hypertext
disrupts this by allowing text screens to be linked in various nonlinear ways.
For example, when you read the Phoenix on paper, you physically must
turn past the masthead in order to get to "Phillipe and Jorge;" but on-line,
you simply click on the hot-link for "P&J" and you're there. Also, computer
applications like Storyspace allow writers to include pictures, sound, and even
video, and these media additions also change the way a story is read.
The interaction between computers and literature is only 30 years old, and it
is still unclear exactly how the interaction might affect the way that we read
stories. With Robert Coover at the helm, Brown University will reaffirm its
place as a leader in electronic writing by hosting "TP21CL -- Technology
Platforms for 21st Century Literature," a monumental exchange between techies
and writers happening from April 7 to 9. Here, Coover talks about the impact
that electronic writing might have on our collective experience of the literary
Q: How does hypertext differ from other text forms that people might
be more familiar with?
A: Well, it's very, very difficult nowadays not to have been exposed to
hypertext, because it's becoming something you find everywhere. It's in
supermarkets, museums, it's all those little strings you put your finger to, to
know where to go, to lead you in different directions. That's hypertext. It's
something made easy by the computer which once was very hard.
What's difficult in print culture and the other forms of older texts was the
necessity of one thing following upon another singularly. One page turns to
another page, one picture gives way to another picture, and even the so-called
moving pictures, motion pictures, are, in effect, a whole bunch of sequential
things happening in a line without any variation in the way that that line is
drawn. And the illusion of motion is derived from the very linearity, static
linearity of the medium.
The computer offers up the possibility, noted 30 some-odd-years ago by a young
computer guru named Ted Nelson, of going from any particular window of space to
any other window of space, from any one window to several at the same time.
Nelson wrote a book called Computer Lib in which he put a lot of windows
all over the paper to give you the feeling of it and invented the word
hypertext. It was a way of talking about text; it brought the text to a hyper
level by way of its multi-linearity. In this multi-linear form, you could go
from one place to another. There had to be decisions made about which choice
you would take. It meant it would be -- here's another key word -- interactive.
It meant that the reader, instead of being a passive page-turner, became an
active page-turner, because he or she had to choose the pages that would be
So hypertext, in its most simple way, is a multi-linear set of images or texts
navigated by links. And it's the link that's the key to hypertext. A link is
also that very peculiar element of the computer itself.
Q: What does it mean to have a program that's specifically for
hypertext writing? For example, the program Storypace, which makes these links
A: The main thing that the reader finds when they get into a
hypertext narrative or poem -- that is, we're talking about literature, this
whole festival is based around the question of literature in this space -- is
the necessity or opportunity to navigate through a whole webwork of possible
narrative elements by choices they make as readers. And in a Storyspace
document, for example, there are lots of text windows, and if you looked behind
the text, you'd actually see the arrows drawn from one piece of text to another
piece of text. So you would see a little box that contained text and it would
have maybe five arrows going out from different words, aiming you at a
different pieces of text elsewhere, and those in turn would be linked to
others. There would be the possibility of wandering around in circles or
progressing outward toward the edges and coming back in to the center and so
Storyspace as a hypertextual authoring tool gives the writer the opportunity
to create elements of text which interrelate with one another without
necessarily following upon one another sequentially. This has been attempted in
prose a few times -- proto-hypertextual narratives. These are texts that are in
print form, but which have link mechanisms built into the text that allow you
to move around the pages. The computer opens this up into immediate manual
clicks and off you go into some new space.
Now we're moving more into Web-based hypertext. This, of course, started in a
linear way, which eventually leapt forward into hypertext sites, http sites.
Anybody who has visited the Web will have been actively working a hypertext.
They will have found a screen of stuff, they will have found several things
they could go to, sometimes just basic information text. These will be little
hot-links that you can jump to. This means that for particular windows of text,
of space, there are any number of ways to leave it. Unfortunately, so far the
Internet does not have the sort of map overviews that a program like Storyspace
provides, and so it's harder to see what you're doing.
Q: What does this do to literary text?
A: Narratives developed sometimes suffer in this space accordingly.
They become diffuse. Part of the concern for this symposium is that as we leave
behind printed text, with its bound pages and its commitment to the line, and
enter into this multi-directional, multi-linear space which is more vague in
its outlines, we enter into problems about the impact of literature, the way in
which we get absorbed by literature and the page turning mechanism. Will it
work in this new hypertextual space? And that problem is even more seriously
augmented by implanting that narrative in such a busy, worldly engaged space as
The Internet seems to be this horribly massive and amorphous space. One feels
that a narrative can kind of get lost and fall apart in that space. Part of
this gathering is to talk about what's happening to literature as we sort of
inevitably make this move.
Q: And so what happens to the writing? Can the multi-media
capabilities drown out the text itself?
A: Of course, I come from the old school, where text still
counts. In the courses and workshops that I teach, I always try to focus on
text itself. I keep asking questions about text in this space. I don't
discourage multi-media efforts, but I don't like the letters to disappear, to
give way to icons and hot-media, although I recognize one cannot resist this.
There are those who argue that the alphabet is an artificial construct which
is doomed to fade away, that those who practiced the art of pictographs may
have been ahead of their time. There is unease about that. Probably the most
interactive thing that we do, in some ways the most human thing that we do, is
to stare at little squiggles of ink on a white surface and out of those invent
vast worlds, landscapes, characters almost more believable than the ones
surrounding us, imaginary experiences that are so rich and complete and whole
that they almost at times dwarf our ordinary experience.
Now, this happens not because we have floated into a movie or sat back and let
a painting wash over us. It happens because we've gone through the work of
converting those squiggles into all that imaginary stuff. It's a hard thing to
do. Learning to read well, not just to be literate, but to read well and deeply
and to be engaged in this way is one of the sought-after goals of a liberal
education. Many people have thrown it away. They've let that imaginative side
of themselves shrink and wither away. These are ideas that are threatened a bit
by the shift toward multi-media. The threat may be genuine and inescapable.
That may be our fate -- that we are headed for a time when we are just less
good readers, that book text, as we know it, will not do well in this new
space, that it will be a text dominated by the hard media and iconic
Perhaps graphic artists will help us to have deep imaginings in the future,
not literary artists. That's a possibility, but I'm not yet willing to throw in
the towel. Part of the purpose of this symposium is to bring writers together,
writers who are in electronic format and in print format, with technological
developers who have shown some appetite for, if not rescuing literature, at
least preventing its total demise. Perhaps they have hidden ambition to write
themselves, or they have some lingering respect of the literary forms and want
to listen to the authors to see if something can be found which would make the
authorial experience richer in the computer space in general.
Q: Some people argue that the text is marginalized by computer
writing because, for example, the attention span of a computer-reader is less.
Do you think this true?
A: Reading off the screen is an overrated problem. I have found
that the current generation of students, many of them, has trouble actually
reading in books, that the page is an alien space. They can sit in front of a
screen and read volumes of text with no strain at all.
It may just be a generation thing. People who read books hate to give it up;
people who are used to the screen don't know why people read books in the first
place. The glare off the screen, distractions from the screen, these are
manageable problems. There are problems with paper, too, serious ones in fact.
The other element is this feeling of, "Well, I can't take it to the beach with
me," or "I can't go to bed with a good computer." Probably in the future you
will be able to do this. We may use up our paper resources. Books may die a
natural death of the dinosaur, because there aren't any more trees to cut down.
Q: What sorts of conceptual ideas are behind this electronic writing
A: When we started all this stuff at Brown, in the pre-personal
computer days, you could only work on Brown University desktop computers that
were heavy, big and expensive. Our work was located on a server that could only
be accessed in one room in the [Center for Information Technology] building.
The sudden arrival of the Internet was the key moment in our relationship with
the computer. Everybody was there. It's been a phenomenal transformation, and
it will continue. It's where it's all happening.
My concern, as I saw us moving there, was that the Internet was hostile to
text. It did not like words. If you put too many words up on the Internet, they
became very unreal very quickly. It was used for moving things, color, clicks,
If we accept that the whole technological revolution is like an onrushing
train and it's going to make books -- in fact, much of our past -- obsolete,
that we're going to move into this new arena willy-nilly, then how can we
somehow preserve something of what was great about the literature that we have
known until now? The idea for the fair began with an interesting evening in
London, talking with an old friend who was also interested in this problem. I
was over there for sabbatical and I'd been worrying this through for a long
time. He could see this literary viewpoint, and he came with a technical
So it began from a simple concern, supported by a man with a technical
background. We were asking the simple question: Does literature have a future
in this space and if it does, how can we enhance it? How can we give text back
its authority, virtue for its own sake, something one feels one ought to read,
and once having read, is rewarded for having done so, not as a duty, but which
in the end is a desire?
Q: What types of groups are taking part in the fair?
A: The original ambition is still there, and the cast of characters
coming reflects that. We have some of the people who have been working the
longest in this hyper-writing stuff. Two of the leading pioneers were Michael
Joyce and Stewart Moulthrop, and they're both coming. They've been at it for
more than a decade, have also migrated to the Internet, and they're confronting
all the problems that the Internet poses.
There are people who have been in text and who have moved to hypertext, like
the poet Stephanie Strickland, who will be coming. There will be young people
who've been electronic writers from the outset, and there will be print writers
who've stayed away from the Internet coming. And then, of course, there will be
a whole array of technical people.
Q: What are some of the events that are happening, and how do you
hope they will address your concerns about electronic writing?
A: All events are open to the public and free. There are two in
particular that would be of interest to the general public, regardless of their
knowledge. The first one is going to be on Wednesday night. It's called
futureTEXT. This is the writer's show and tell night. It's going to be
quite circusy, quite high-flying. We've got nearly 20 writers with something to
show. The primary purpose is to show the range of material so that the
developers in the audience will understand where we are right now as writers.
The other event is on Thursday afternoon, futureTECH. The technical
developers will be showing off their stuff and talking about it. All of this
comes to hopeful fruition Friday morning. It won't be scripted until we have
watched what happens the other two days. A wonderful talent is coming from
Georgia Tech, Jay David Bolter. He helped invent Storyspace. He's a writer.
He's also an important theorist. His task is going to be to attend everything,
to digest it all, to determine what it is that we really should be talking
about, and to give us the Friday agenda. It will be the moment which I hope
developers will say, "I can see what we can do with our systems," and the
writers will say, "I understand this medium better, and I'm going to shift my
work a little more towards what this medium is good for." It should provide
awareness on all sides of what is possible, maybe leaving some questions
hanging in the air that need to be answered.
We hope Friday will be a concluding but also a continuing dialogue. We don't
expect it to end here, but it will be the climactic moment of what's gone
before. This is a historic encounter between developers and writers. This has
never happened before. This is a unique occasion. It's exciting. The people
involved in it want to keep it going.
"Technology Platforms for 21st Century Literature" will take place at Brown
University April 7-9. For more information, go to
www.stg.brown.edu/projects/TP21CL/ or call 863-2476.