For Thee: A Response to Alice Bell

For Thee: A Response to Alice Bell

The Possible Worlds of Hypertext Fiction
Alice Bell
London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.

Stuart Moulthrop uses the lessons of hypertext as both an analogy and an explanation for why hypertext and its criticism will stay in a “niche” - and why, despite Bell’s concern, that’s not such a bad thing. As the response of an author to his critic, addressed to “thee,” “implicitly dragging her into the niche with me,” this review also dramatizes the very productivity of such specialized, nodal encounters.

Ryan Brooks:

“Play” that more and more comes to resemble work: in a riposte to an article published in ebr’s Second Person volume, Jan Van Looy argues that gaming is just the thing for preparing a generation of future office workers.

Ryan Brooks:

In “Cognition Against Narrative: Six Essays on Contemporary Cognitive Fiction,” Joseph Tabbi argues that narrativity does not comfortably inhabit electronic environs.


Whirl around long enough on the event horizon of contemporary culture and you will find yourself apologizing to ghosts, speaking to persons who have quit the scene, copping to offenses no longer on the books. No, the jacket is not required. Yes, e-mail is as good as hard copy. Of course you may tweet during your talk; everyone in the audience will. The situation may easily turn paradoxical, as when Jon Stewart, scourge of pundits who are hurting America, slyly invokes the Cleveland Steamer, or some other code word from what used to be deep blue. Any caress is permitted, slap or tickle. You can say everything on the wires these days. The world turns. Rage and outrage, always closest of cousins, hook up during yet another prime-time ode to erectile dysfunction, and fly away to Vegas or some other place where everyone forgets. There is no one to offend anymore but figments, phantoms, and the voices in one’s head.

Notwithstanding the disestablishment of taboo, I offer a disclaimer. Perhaps it is no longer questionable to discuss a work of criticism that discusses, among others, one’s own work of fiction. However, I probably should address the familiarity in my title. Alice Bell and I have exchanged a few messages, are and I hope will remain on cordial terms, but are not closely acquainted. I have no reason to address her as thee, beyond a certain facile allusion, and whatever common cause may emerge in this essay.

If there is some convergence of creative and critical interests here, there are also important differences, which I suppose I do not properly respect. In The Possible Worlds of Hypertext Fiction, Bell cites Brian McHale on the “ontological scandal” of second-person address in fictional discourse: crossing world-streams always risks confusion, or worse (37). No doubt the second person is equally problematic in meta-criticism, or whatever this is I am presently writing. At worst, the familiarity I insinuate between author and critic perpetuates a certain isolation:

As studies have shown…the distribution of hypertext fiction is limited to a relatively, small, niche market which mainly includes other writers of hypertext fiction and university students. (166)

As the Welsh curse says, let me show you a study. Facts must be faced, though, along with their consequences. As if it isn’t bad enough that the only people who read hypertext fictions are intellectual cult leaders and their academic hostages, I make matters worse by getting familiar, talking back to a legitimate critic, implicitly dragging her into the niche with me, no doubt determined that no one escape the old neighborhood.

For Dr. Bell, the adjectival niche is a term of suspicion. I disagree, having learned to think of literary or cultural niches not as traps, but as necessary predicaments or premises. As I see it, if dwellers in these dens need to escape anything, it is the niche distinction itself, the overriding concern with separation of specialist and popular markets. Indeed, that numinous word market seems ripe for inspection.

Granted, inspection can never lead all the way to categorical rejection, so long as we inhabit the neo-imperial metastate, or in literary terms, what I have elsewhere called Reagan Library. Markets exist ineluctably, perhaps as a condition of language, consciousness, or animal being, and the value of what we think and make continues to be set by their unseen hands. It would be disingenuous to claim otherwise while discussing a study that may help establish the value of hypertext fiction, a literary project to which I have long been committed. While I would suggest a different understanding of markets, one less concerned with dominance than circulation, perhaps more attuned to attention than capital, I freely concede that value is always a vexed business. Indeed, as I have just confessed, there is a particular problem of accounting here, a debt of recognition I cannot properly settle. Strictly speaking, my opinion of Dr. Bell’s book is tainted by conflict of interest; yet the work deserves appreciation on several grounds.

The Possible Worlds of Hypertext Fiction is traditional in the best way: it draws productively on critical and analytical movements that have co-evolved with experimental writing, offering insights into their common cultural milieu. Bell affiliates most closely with ontological criticism, an approach to narrative that moves past the self-gratifying delights of metafiction to a more interesting engagement with systematic simulation. McHale is an important source here, along with the cybertextualist Raine Koskimaa, but the leading influence comes from Marie-Laure Ryan, particularly her Narrative as Virtual Reality. Bell draws productively on that book, as well as earlier studies by Doležel, Pavel, Margolin, and others, forging an eminently useful framework for understanding complex, procedural narratives.

The intellectual foundation for this approach derives from Possible Worlds Theory, a neo-Leibnizian concept in which language becomes a tool for engaging (or at least modeling) multiple realities. Though Bell’s book is a relatively modest project, devoting close attention to four long-form hypertexts (afternoon, a story; Victory Garden; Patchwork Girl; and Figurski at Findhorn on Acid), it belongs to a growing contemporary engagement with procedural forms, in text as well as other domains. The resonance of Possible Worlds thinking with Richard Grusin’s notion of premediation, with its emphasis on preconceived frames of reference for any possible experience, seems especially compelling. There are also interesting points of contact with the neo-formalist cybertext movement originated by Espen Aarseth, as well as the new field of software studies, as developed by Lev Manovich, Noah Wardrip-Fruin, Jeremy Douglass, and others. The book should thus be useful even to people outside the electronic literature fan club, and may have particular interest for scholars and teachers of literature seeking connections between the book tradition and what comes after.

Bell describes her study as a “methodological challenge” and a model for future encounters with digitally-mediated texts (27). She has in mind primarily hypertextual narratives produced since arrival of the World Wide Web, but the project seems extensible to other branches of the cybertext family. A Possible-Worlds reading of text adventure or interactive fiction might be particularly interesting, and would open the door to that most heavily capitalized form of popular culture, the video game.

The cybertextualists staked out that market segment long ago, notably complicating the relationship between conventional literary theory, especially narratology, and newer theoretical projects. However, no successful franchise can go unchallenged. A plausible business case might be made for an alternative cultural enterprise based on Possible Worlds theory, resting perhaps on its distinctive attention to practical interpretation, or reading. At the moment, at least in the popular press, much is being made of the transition from close reading to what Franco Moretti calls “distant” reading, a term that becomes shorthand for various ways of thinking about literature in corpora, genres, and indeed markets. Refreshingly, Alice Bell’s project moves in the opposite direction, attending in very specific terms to encounters between particular readers and hypertexts, or at least one of the former and four of the latter.

This attention seems commendable, no matter how much the embarrassment of authorship infects my judgment. As Bell notes, earlier hypertext criticism devoted too much attention to polemic and positioning and too little to “analyses of individual works” (6). This deficiency may once have been excusable on grounds that hardly any hypertexts had yet been produced, but it has grown less acceptable through the years. Important exceptions might be made for Jane Douglas, Jill Walker, and Silvio Gaggi, all of whom read particular works very closely, but are nonetheless grouped with the theory-thumpers (this correspondent among the worst) in what Bell calls the “first wave” of hypertext reception. Periodization is always debatable, but despite its rough edges, Bell’s invocation of a second wave of hypertext criticism seems laudable, and not simply because, speaking again as a subject of study, it is nice to know someone still cares.

Facetiousness aside: Alice Bell is up to something important. Her second-wave concept re-asserts the meaning, identity, and most important, the active involvement of readers in the increasingly important context of digital text. Second-wave criticism directly addresses the predicament of readers, however confined or coerced into their niches, trying to make sense of difficult and “slippery” texts:

The second-wave theory has shown that the structure of the text, and the reader’s role within it, represent a means of prohibiting her or him from fully engaging with the narratives that hypertext novels contain. (16)

On first encounter, this passage made me uneasy. This is partly because none of the four writers under study called their works “novels.” (When it came to subtitling, I thought of Borges and said fiction.) I could suggest that hypertext fiction relates to the history of the novel only tangentially, as birds to dinosaurs (novelists having every right to see themselves as the living branch and hypertext the extinct one). On the other hand, since some biologists insist that birds are dinosaurs, perhaps the point is not worth arguing. If there is something to be gained by calling hypertext fictions “novels,” I will not object.

Indeed, the object lesson in this passage has to do with re-integration. Hypertext writers are being read back into the history of the novel, ready or not. Some of us, with unhappy memories of recent moments in that history, may find this problematic. At first, Bell’s account of textual prohibition calls to mind critiques from the turn of the century (e.g., Birkerts, Murray, and Ryan), which argue that hypertext fiction cannot deliver the immersion (or in Ryan’s term “re-centering”) essential to literary narrative. The essence of Bell’s project, however - and the key to its importance - stems from an ability to acknowledge and move beyond this critique. The old form of immersion (or as Birkerts describes it, hypnosis) may not be possible in so-called hypertext novels. However, something we can reasonably still describe as reading continues to take place, and Bell sets out to explore it. I have been waiting a long time for someone to do this.

As Manovich has specified, digital art consists most generally of database and interface. Expanding upon this observation, Markku Eskelinen notes that the reader or receiver of digital artifacts is not obligated to inspect every item in a cybertextual database, but is instead challenged to discover those that contribute to a desired or successful outcome. Bell cites Ryan’s telling observation that hypertext fictions resemble video games in this regard (15). Any player knows the holding power of such games has more to do with obsession than hypnosis. Play, as Steven Johnson has noticed, has begun to look decidedly iterative and agonized, which is to say, much like what we once called work, though perhaps more intense.

According to Bell, even as hypertext fiction locks the reader out of the ancient amusements of straightforward storytelling, it stirs up a countervailing labor action, an arguably novel concern with language as system:

The reader is always aware that the current reading path can be replaced by an alternative so that it is apparent that it is only ever a temporary construction. (19; emphasis original)

This awareness of structural contingency has been too little understood - or for that matter, considered - by some earlier critics of hypertext. Possible Worlds Theory offers an excellent means of correcting this problem, at least in Bell’s application. We are all about flouting prohibitions these days, and thus also about the hard work of reading, interpreting, and other forms of semantic play. Not for nothing did Aarseth name his technological aesthetic the ergodic, a term that recognizes effort or ergon as first principle.

It is tempting to describe Bell’s approach as one possible form of ergodics, a specific interpretive practice that may contribute crucially to our understanding of digital media. Here again, though, I may be accused of pitching a big tent in a small niche, attempting to unify approaches that do not freely affiliate. Bell mentions cybertext and its theory in passing, and Eskelinen discusses Possible Worlds in some detail in his dissertation on neo-narratology, but neither would likely collapse her or his project into the other’s; nor perhaps should they. Like all sentimentalisms, my attempt at easy entente glosses over significant differences. While I do think it is ultimately possible to reconcile cybertextual and ontological criticism within a larger frame of reference, the task involves some complications, and may call into question at least one major assertion in Bell’s study.

At this point I proceed with special caution, because I am about to do something decidedly unfair, contrasting my own understanding of Victory Garden with Dr. Bell’s. This may of course be a reckless project. The best critics comprehend works of fiction much better than the authors, as may be the case here. It certainly must be said that Alice Bell grasps with notable intelligence the design and aesthetic of the four works in question. While she writes with greatest insight about Patchwork Girl, producing what seems to this third party a very clear account of its multi-textual artifice, her treatments of Figurski at Findhorn on Acid and Victory Garden are also astute. I am slightly less enthusiastic about her discussion of afternoon, because I am more inclined to view its dynamic uncertainties as a kind of anti-ontology, a structure for what doesn’t and perhaps must not exist (to paraphrase Joyce), rather than a simple failure to specify. This is essentially a matter of taste. In what follows, I do not mean to imply that Bell’s readings are in any way negligent or inaccurate.

They cannot, however, be complete. Bell notes that the reader of a hypertext struggles against a prohibition of total knowledge. We are always trapped in the middle of something, left to forage for context. The text before us at any moment, what cybertextualists call the scripton, is always a particular and contingent construction. Beyond what it signifies in terms of narrative discourse, the text implies other possibilities or lines of development. We see this, but we could be seeing… what? In the case of hypertext fiction, the presence of visible or detectable link cues reinforces this effect. The aesthetic of these texts often seems borrowed from a hall of mirrors, where the artifice of self-reference conspires to turn mere series into an illusion of infinity. As Adrian Miles has observed, hypertext embodies a logic of excessive production that echoes Bataille’s parte maudite, the inherent tendency of signs to overflow boundaries and complicate economies of scarcity. Indeed, something similar seems implicit in Possible Worlds Theory itself.

Selection, or navigation as the Web has called it, is always required. As Borges’ narrator says, the Garden of Forking Paths is bequeathed to some futures, but not all. Bell does a highly creditable job of working out paths in all four fictions: a judgment I can well and truly authorize with respect to Victory Garden. If she were writing about a video game instead of a mutated novel, I would say that she had arrived at an elegant traversal of the game world, beating the game’s puzzles in a way that best matches its overall shape and intention.

As we know, however, good games can always be replayed, and even the most elegant traversal can be called in question. So here, strictly for the purposes of argument, I will interrogate a particular interpretive choice in Bell’s account of Victory Garden. Like Koskimaa before her, Bell is interested in the “ontologically peculiar” map that offers one of several interfaces to the fictive database. The map is especially important because it resonates usefully with Possible Worlds Theory. Among others things, Bell notes, the map “separates the Actual World and Textual Actual World so as to define spaces that are ontologically distinct” (83). This assertion seems plausible enough, and it is probably irrelevant to note that I added the map sometime after arriving at what I thought of as a complete version of the project. If the map turns out to hold the key to Victory Garden’s textual ontology, it hardly matters how long it took to invent it. I may know more than my reader about the composition of Victory Garden, but that does not mean I understand the text any better than she.

However, the late arrival of the map does matter in one respect: it supplemented (and in Bell’s case, has perhaps supplanted) another mechanism designed to encourage variety in reading. As Bell accurately notes, “Victory Garden has multiple entrances from which the reader must choose so that interactivity is required from the very outset and some degree of ontological distancing achieved before the narrative is unravelled” (80). From what follows in Bell’s discussion, however, it would be easy to conclude that these “multiple entrances” all depend on the schematic map, which she calls at one point “the entrance to Victory Garden” (83). Strictly speaking, the map is an or this, not the entrance to the text. I stoop to pedantry with this quibble, though hopefully in service of a larger argument. In fact there is another way into Victory Garden, and the first choice of engagement facing the reader comes before she can see the map.

The first presented lexia of Victory Garden, the rough equivalent of a title page, offers several possibilities for initial action. To reach the map, the reader may follow an explicit cue at the bottom of the screen. Above this line, however, is another that reads: “Press Return to begin; for help, click on ‘help’ ” (the last referring, embarrasingly, to an interface feature since relocated). Pressing the Return key takes the reader to a lexia called Properties, which contains acknowledgments and legal notices. Pressing Return at this point takes the reader back to the title lexia, at which point, if she remembers the proverbial definition of insanity, she may choose to do something other than press Return again, and so may try the cue that leads to the map. However, since the Storyspace hypertext system adapts its responses based on the user’s engagement with the text, a second Return does not in fact take the reader to Properties, but to a lexia called Come In, which looks like this:



labyrinth : beginning

This lexia is the entry point of a subsystem of Victory Garden which I privately named the Initiator. Though I cannot say for certain that it was the first part of Victory Garden I wrote, it was certainly among the earliest. I designed it in response to a technical problem, the lack of any mechanism for random selection in Storyspace. Before starting Victory Garden, I had been building a multimedia narrative using Apple’s HyperCard system, which included a scripting language and a framework for moving to a randomly selected lexia, or card. Having spent some time in lab settings where groups of readers made their way through early hypertexts on individual machines, discussing their progress as they went, I was especially interested in random entry points, since they seemed to lead to the most interesting exchanges. I therefore attempted a workaround that would encourage variation within an essentially linear or deterministic structure.

The simplest solution to this problem seemed to be a series of lexias each of which presented the reader with part of a sentence, and two possibilities for further development. In Come In, the words labyrinth and beginning are both link cues, each connected to a lexia that offers a further pair of choices for the next word. There are something like three dozen possible sentences, or final lexias, each of which has a default link (activated by the Return key) to a certain lexia in the text. In many, but I think not all cases, these are the same lexias linked from the titles on the schematic map.

In addition to historically conditioned links, Storyspace also allows writers to give every lexia a title. Michael Joyce had shown in afternoon that these titles could themselves form parts of an extended series or syntax; so I gave suggestive titles to the various lexias in the Initiator, hoping that a reader might notice them in passing, while already several steps along in the main sequence. I imagined a reader might be induced to reverse course in order to read the title sequence from the beginning, and having reversed, might forget which set of binary selections she had made previously. Ideally, this would send readers into the text with an intentional sense of error or misdirection. As I have said, this impulse maps closely to Bell’s observation about the perceived artifice or contingency of hypertextual reading, and demonstrates how well she understands hypertext fiction.

The labyrinthine structure of the Initiator has another, ultimately obscure purpose in Victory Garden. In those days before the Web taught the world to follow links, I took seriously Michael Joyce’s advice to readers of afternoon that it might be acceptable to “march through on a wave of Returns.” George Landow once described Victory Garden as a “lexia-flipper,” as one would call a book a page-turner, and the description is both fair and accurate. Back in those days, I had not learned to love the niche. I was trying to write something less challenging than afternoon, to see if hypertext could appeal to a broader reading public. Results have been generally negative, but that is why we do experiments.

There are something like 37 distinct pathways through Victory Garden which require the reader to do nothing more than press the Return key after reading one of its lexias. Each of these paths begins with a lexia that is linked by default from one of the Initiator’s termini; so, the way one chooses to complete the initial sentence (and its overlying, word-at-a-time title sequence) determines the default path at which one arrives. As things developed, the default paths in Victory Garden have been very little noticed or used, since most readers have preferred to follow links. Once a reader leaves the initial default path, she is on her own, and can find her own way through the system. This arrangement makes Victory Garden particularly amenable to a Possible Worlds approach, since like most hypertexts it is an engine for exploring possible stories.

Having thus returned to and confirmed the terms of Bell’s analysis, it seems worth asking if her decision to favor the graphical map over the bifurcating Initiator makes any real difference. In some sense, it clearly does not. As I have said, Bell’s general understanding of Victory Garden is unimpeachable. Further, it seems plausible to extend her remarks about the textual ontology of the map to the forked syntaxes of the Initiator. All things considered, I am just as happy that she chose the map, since its crude, grayscale graphics may represent a paleolithic ancestor of later Web designs, and could thus have some historical significance. Selections must be made; no reader of anything as accursedly complex as a hypertext fiction can be held responsible for all its twists and turns. Nothing in my discussion here should lower anyone’s estimate of Bell’s work or skill.

Yet the choice of the map over the verbal labyrinth does have one important resonance, not with Possible Worlds Theory or ontological criticism, but rather with another aspect of Bell’s project: her cultural or institutional polemic. It is time to remember our place, or as Bell insists, our niche. In her conclusion, Bell puts the specialist community on notice:

Finally, the scholars of hypertext fiction and digital texts generally must publicize their work to the wider academic community. A failure to disseminate work more widely will mean that this area of research remains detrimentally niche. The fascinating narrative experiments that digital texts are capable of will be kept hidden and the methodological advances that will inevitably be made within hypertext theory will remain undisclosed. Both scenarios will disadvantage both print and digital scholarship. (192)

There is nothing immediately objectionable about this argument. Believing in the principle of open circulation that may be the best feature of digital culture, I see some wisdom in Bell’s caution against hermetic self-enclosure. Why indeed spend decades advancing a craft, only to keep it “undisclosed?” As I have said here, The Possible Worlds of Hypertext Fiction is a useful book, one that indeed lays groundwork for important further studies. Ontological criticism carries serious engagement with hypertext beyond formal difference, or rejectionist critiques of conceptual difficulty. This book and its successors will improve our understanding of “digital texts generally.”

However, I think these effects will come about quite readily even if we never leave our controversial niche - provided we understand that a niche is not necessarily a fatal destination. It would be more accurate to say that, where digital texts and networks are involved, we are everywhere and always in niches. At least one etymology of the word derives from Latin nidus (nest), which is close enough to nodus (knot or swelling) to suggest at least poetic congruence. Leaving aside its unpleasant connotations in biology, the term node in network theory converges strongly with the hypertext theorist’s lexia, meaning one element of an articulated system, reachable or producible by certain logical procedures, a little world made of possible words.

Some of these textual possible worlds are called fictions. Others are called interpretations, or readings. In fact, Alice Bell’s reading of Victory Garden, in which for entirely plausible reasons she chooses one mechanism for textual multiplicity in place of another, represents a node in a network of possible readings. My comments about the Initiator constitute a different node, and we could further populate the array by exploring critical strategies attuned to other aspects of the text. No doubt most forms of literary response could be subjected to this analysis, even those that concern themselves with proper novels. The more complex the text (think for instance of Finnegans Wake or House of Leaves), the more robust its critical network.

Arguably, though, hypertext makes a difference at least in degree, and possibly also in kind; this may be a first-wave, media-centric argument, but it deserves a hearing. By taking the form of a database or finite-state machine (very roughly speaking, a kind of network), hypertext fictions exemplify and call attention to the very form of networks. Even more than the readings of traditional novels, poems, or plays, readings of cybertexts will fall into networks of possibility, because the discursive possibilities of the subject text (its potential scriptons) are so bewilderingly various. Recall that in the case of Victory Garden we have to consider not just different versions of the story, but different mechanisms for differntiating the story. The level of complication is very high, but it arguably serves a significant purpose. Hypertexts teach us to read within networks; and if we think further, they may teach us to read networks as well.

Reading within a network is, necessarily, to occupy a niche; but if we take the right view from that constrained or encircled space, we may be able to understand our predication as something other than dire predicament. This realization requires the second phase of our proposed endeavor, reading the network, which is deeply paradoxical, and may be strictly speaking impossible. Even in the case of small, finite labyrinths like the four fictions of Bell’s study, we cannot expect the reader or critic to account for every scriptonic possibility. She can in good conscience invoke the Cybertext Exemption, elsewhere known as the player’s ability to win a game without discovering every possible way to lose.

In all but a few cases - Douglas’ heroically exhaustive reading of afternoon being a notable exception - we will read a network only by approximation or conjecture. Even with texts that consist of a few hundred lexias and links, we will probably not itemize the millions of possible reading paths. As Bell realizes, the reader of a hypertext always recognizes the contingency of her current position. So, I would argue, must a hypertext critic understand him or herself with respect to the even less definable network of culture, or cultural institutions. When we deal in lexias and nodes, we will inevitably end up in niches, both in terms of our particular readings, and perhaps also our institutional identities.

This tendency becomes all the more pronounced as our art forms embrace something like Bataille’s general economy, becoming ever more diabolically clever and complex. While it would be nice to think of a future where Patchwork Girl settles into the secondary-school syllabus after Pride and Prejudice (or indeed, Frankenstein), it is hard to predict early or widespread success for this sort of mainstreaming. Certain communities in Australia have done something like what I suggest here, and perhaps their experience will change the game, but I have my doubts. For all their blokey self-effacement, Australians are a very advanced people, at least as compared to the U.S.A. Selling hypertext fiction to certain school boards here in the States would be a tough go, even had a certain writer never messed with Texas.

Hypertext fictions are rather feathery and warm-blooded sorts of dinosaur: not very much like most things we call novels. The dynamics and complexity of these works and things like them demand extraordinary effort and attention, on a level that seems destined to separate casual readers from serious critics. In other words, there may be good reasons why hypertext fiction remains a niche phenomenon.

Reading the surrounding network, however imperfectly, suggests that this specialization is not necessarily a bad thing. Consider these words by Adam Cadre, introducing his oeuvre of remarkable interactive fictions:

To most people who’ve heard of it, the entry for “interactive fiction” in their mental dictionaries goes something like this: “Interactive fiction, noun. A fancy name for text adventures, a type of computer game popular in the early 1980s despite having no graphics. Usually involved wandering around in caves solving complicated puzzles, and became completely obsolete around the time Reagan left office, as graphics became less crappy.”

This epitaph is of course delightfully wrong. Commercial text adventures may indeed have been the original Reagan Library, but the history of the genre did not end in 1989. Though the niche into which it settled is just as unprofitable as the one assigned to hypertext fiction (if somewhat larger and sunnier), interactive fiction continues to exert a detectable cultural force. These games are still being produced, played, appreciated, and evaluated by a number of self-sustaining communities. They have received critical attention from the likes of Nick Montfort, and have served as subject of a documentary film, Jason Scott’s Get Lamp. Arguably more important, they are regularly played, studied, alluded to, and emulated by designers of mass-market video games. Similar things could be said about the generation of computer games that came after text adventures, graphical adventures like Tales of Monkey Island, Day of the Tentacle, and King’s Quest. As Anastasia Salter has found, many of these mythoi are kept alive today through so-called abandonware that makes use of intellectual property no longer under active development, as well as in fan-produced homages and other forms of nicherei.

As we learn to intuit (if not read) the shapes and tendencies of our encompassing networks, we may come to understand how niches communicate and articulate, forming channels and flows that remain invisible to those more attuned to dominance. No doubt for some people, the economics and politics of network culture will continue to revolve around the likes of Facebook and Twitter, the AOL de nos jours, and by Hollywood studios, big-box retailers, and other avatars of vertical integration. So long as there is a market for culture and entertainment, there will be something that looks like a main stream or middle of the road.

As Yochai Benkler has plausibly demonstrated, however, the existence of major concentrations of capital and attention does not diminish the importance of traffic at the margins. Indeed, if Chris Anderson’s admittedly controversial claims about deeply attenuated, “Long Tail” markets prove out, we may find the relationship between big boxes and quaint corners increasingly open to negotiation. It may be possible to imagine a future for many ostensible niche plays - from hypertext fiction and unforgotten video games, to equally unpopular forms like serious journalism, epic poetry, black-and-white television, or maybe someday soon, even two-dimensional cinema - without insisting on broader distribution. The world needs specialists, devotees, otaku. Almost no one has what it takes to tease out a convincing reading of a hypertext fiction, let alone every possible lexia. Likewise, very few people have time or inclination to write emulators for obsolete software, compose Klingon dictionaries, trace the genealogies of Web memes, or update Wikipedia entries for Astroboy, Richard Holeton, or Wild Palms. Mindful of our own peculiarities, some of us will insist on valuing those who somehow do.

The case I am making here may be a hard sell for anyone who does not strongly identify with obscurity, or accept that literature in some or all its forms belongs to the accursed share. For those who still insist on broader recognition for things like hypertext fiction, we might submit not an argument but a question: if not niche identity, then what? If niche is an adjective meaning detrimental, what is the corresponding term of praise? If as I have insinuated, the answer is something like popular or mainstream, then please explain how ontological criticism, an admirable, elegant, but intellectually demanding practice, will expand the population of readers. Perhaps we should instead concentrate on improving the product. Should we add graphics? (Tried that.) Nudity? (That too.) Sound tracks? (Ditto.) 3-D? (I omit from this list an obvious suggestion, namely subjects more engaging than paranoid histories of the Gulf War.) Perhaps the appeal to a wider audience is meant mainly for scholars, but again the obvious question: isn’t scholarship a niche, and precisely the one in which we sit?

These questions may be adversarial, though they are meant by way of dialogue, not refutation. I do sympathize with Bell’s critique of niche identity. Part of me (probably the Austro-Hungarian bit that holds majority stake in the Ego) hopes she is right after all. If Bell’s wishes came true, we could see more attention paid to hypertexts and other forms of art in which I believe. We might well have more enlightening, gratifying studies like Possible Worlds. I would be the last to complain if this were so.

There is also something to be said about ethos here. It is one thing for me to speculate from what is after all a comfortable corner of obscurity. It is something else for an ambitious critic to advance a career by attempting to expand the field of study. There may be good reasons why authors and critics see the world differently, and especially this author and this critic.

On the other hand, as I suggested originally, there are points on which we may not differ at all. I agree that hypertext fiction, interactive fiction, graphical adventures, art games, and other niche genres should not be left in splendid isolation. These days, no fan is an island. Our possible worlds buzz and hum with resonance; they expand and intersect. All that remains at issue is the means and mechanism of connection, whether we choose to think of it as cultural consensus expressed by some duly educated, invisible hand; or as the burble, noise, and jam of autonomous, autotelic, self-deprecating networks. The answer, as always, will lie somewhere in the near distance, along a vector of emergence I can predict no more accurately than Dr. Bell. Without doubt, the future of hypertext and other kinds of electronic literature will owe something important to ontological criticism, as it will to cybertext theory, software studies, and other variations of ergodics. Whether we continue to inhabit the small world of the old niche, or break out into some grander space, Alice Bell’s book demonstrates that there is much to exchange between authors and critics: an abundance of work ahead for me and thee.


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Benkler, Yochai. The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom. Yale UP, 2007.

Birkerts, Sven. Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age. Faber and Faber, 1997.

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