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Robert Coover is leading a literary revolution that eschews pen and paper for keyboard and mouse

by Rebecca Dorr

[Robert Coover] 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 computer screen.

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 text.

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 seen.

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 possible?

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 on.

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.

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 presentation.

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 fair?

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, animated objects.

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 background.

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.

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