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Essay 1

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    The piece of hyperfiction I read was The Unknown by William Gillespie, Scott Rettberg, Dirk Stratton and Frank Marquardt. I will first give an outline of the story, then devote the main part of my essay to describing my reading experience under two broad theoretical categories: the applied rhetoric and the production of meaning in the text.

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The outline

    Briefly, The Unknown is a fictional account (a pre-publicity stunt) of a book tour that a group of guys took. It narrates the experiences of Scott, Dirk, William and Frank touring the country in a van, giving book readings and writing out travel memoirs as they went along. The story takes them all over America: it covers disused cemeteries in Illinois and Kansas, the outdoors at Alley Springs, beer-drinking in Portland, book-reading in Nebraska, and so much more.

   

   Besides the narrative, The Unknown also contains sections comprising: factual accounts of the writers’ real experiences in the production of the story; correspondence; live audio readings; a collection of watercolor paintings; and other features like a map of America to guide the reader, a list of bookstores, and a schedule of live readings.

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My reading experience

            The first impression I had of this piece of hyperfiction was: CONFUSING! I had difficulty finding my way around and making the pages connect sensibly, for the structure seemed arbitrary and haphazard to me. But I slowly managed to grasp the strategies needed to read hypertext, and made a little more meaning out of it as I went along.

 

In terms of the rhetoric applied, how The Unknown threads things together relies heavily on the organization of links, as expected. To cite Michael Joyce, ‘the distinction between nodes and links is not always represented in hypertext programs; and the contents of the nodes themselves can often function as links’. The links in this text were all in the nodes (text) themselves. There were some semantic connections used: the words ‘The Unknown Cookbook’ took me to a recipe for duck tails. But how this hyperfiction worked, I thought, was primarily through association and connection. Many of the links brought me to specific events or locations of their tour. The feeling I had was that I was going through a person’s mind. I had read a particular extract in the ‘Correspondence’ section, where one of the writers described that the hypertext novel may be shaped like a brain. I thought this was really applicable in this text, because the organization of the links reminded me of the way a conversation or recollection works—where specific words jolt our memory or conjure certain images through association. This could be a reason why there seemed to be so many links on each page—they represented connections to things that may in fact be quite distant from what was being told at that point, and worked like how a mind works. In the first page, there were already more than ten links, and they each took me to very diverse settings, with no chronological order at all.

 

This was thus a hypertext in its true sense, applying the “new”, or rather, “additional” writing disciplines of Bricolage and Juxtaposition. Although there was a page outlining key events in the narrative, the story did not follow the order given there, and there was definitely no logical deduction involved in the structuring of events, too. Basically, I was left to ‘connect the dots’ in any way I chose. Thus, I felt that the definition of Bricolage—‘something constructed by using whatever comes to hand’—fitted in nicely with this conceptualization of the ‘brain’. There was a point where I was led to a factual transcript of the writers planning the story, and spent a long time there because I found it more interesting than the narrative. I had to force myself to go back and continue with the story! When I lost interest trying to connect the events of their New Year celebrations, I ‘alighted’, clicked on something else, and hopped onboard whatever seemed more engaging or easier to follow.

   

   As for the design and layout, The Unknown was organized using a colour scheme, with each section having a colour code: the Red Line represented the narrative, the Orange Line was for the correspondence, and other colours for the rest. I thought this was extremely value-added, and something which I noticed in one or two other pieces of hyperfiction too. I hope this will become a set rhetorical device for hypertext in the future, and won’t be surprised if it does!

 

Besides that, what struck me about this text was that it did not use much visual stimuli. There were some interesting snippets of visual aids like an authentic scanned diary and the map of America. But there were only a few pictures of the writers at various locations. In short, it relied strongly on the force of its prose to paint the picture. An interesting feature in this hyperfiction, though,  was the ‘Real Audio’ option available on some pages. It allowed the reader to listen to a reading of the text on that page. Although I did not find much use for it personally, it did provide an amusing alternative.

 

In terms of the production of meaning in The Unknown, let me first say that I personally agree most with Paul Ricoeur’s view of Phenomenological Hermeneutics, which asserts that: 'Proposed "world" of the text + "world" of the reader = meaning projected "in front of" the text'. What he is saying is that the activities of the reader impacts upon, and shapes, the production of meaning in a text, and I find it undeniably true here. This has all to do with the nature of the rhetoric discussed above, which passes much of the onus of ‘making sense’ onto the reader. The proliferation of links, and the multitude of paths to choose, ENSURES that no two readers will understand the story in the same way. Even if they may read the same pages, the order will be different, and hence the mental pictures that form in their minds will be slightly different. I would say that in hyperfiction, the role of the reader is greater than in an academic hypertext, where the outline is more clear-cut. And it is definitely much greater when compared to our normal print text. I realized that the reason why I couldn’t make meaning at first was because I had brought my expectation of print text to The Unknown. It was only after I knew that linearity and continuity were not to be expected in a hyperfiction, did I begin to relax and ‘go where the wind takes me’. I knew that it wasn’t possible to trace the events of their New Year celebrations chronologically, so I skipped to other stuff like their camping out in the woods, etc. Although the sense of logical connection was diminished, I felt that I gained a wider perspective, and when certain parts seemed boring to me, I could just take off to another route. These are things that a print text cannot provide, or at least not that much.

 

This ‘transferral’ of responsibility to the reader, as mentioned above, is directly linked to what has been thought of as the ‘death of the author’, by Roland Barthes. I felt that in The Unknown, the authors’ role was more to guide me along, rather than to ‘force’ their own structure and layout upon me. It’s like I was an explorer backpacking with a map, instead of being in a packaged tour. I was lost and unsure, but also had more freedom to plan my own itinerary. The writers did not tell me what to read, but provided me with tools for me to find out myself. In the end, I guess it’s not so much of the author ‘dying’, but more of a ‘sharing’ of the responsibility of making meaning.

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Concluding ideas

To sum up, my first experience with hyperfiction was certainly unforgettable. At the beginning of the module, I thought that hypertext was just normal text with some links here and there for convenience’s sake. What a shock I had when I tried to read one! I think hyperfiction represents a new, avant-garde dimension in literature. It’s an alternative to print fiction, with pros and cons to each of them depending on the reader’s interests. Electronic text has its advantages, but there are some things that it just cannot replace: the feel of a book, the portability and convenience, etc. The print text is a culture that has been ingrained in society, especially the older generation, so it will be hard to remove.  So in the near future, I guess that hyperfiction will flourish, more as an alternative way of reading rather than a replacement for print fiction. As for the very distant future, who knows!

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Bibliography:

Burbules, Nicholas C. "Rhetorics of the Web: Hyperreading and Critical Literacy." Page to Screen: Taking Literacy into the Electronic Era, Ilana Snyder, ed. 1997. http://www.ed.uiuc.edu/facstaff/burbules/ncb/papers/rhetorics.html (10 Feb. 2000).

Joyce, Michael. "What is Hypertext?". Of Two Minds: Hypertext Pedagogy and Poetics. 1993. http://iberia.vassar.edu/~mijoyce/What_s_hypertext.html (10 Feb. 2000).


            Lodge, David (Ed.). Modern Criticism and Theory: A Reader. London: Longman, 1988.


            Valdés, Mario J. (ed). Reflection & Imagination: A Ricoeur Reader. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1991.

 

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Find out how my tutorial mates Mike, Mei Peen and Lilin found The Unknown

June read The Color of Television, and Lee Peng read A Woman Stands On a Corner
Take a look at how they found these stories

You can find all these hyperfiction and more here!