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Intersections: Explore

Web-Specific Women Writers

Commentary by Marjorie Coverley Luesebrink ,
aka M.D. Coverley, creator of Califia from Eastgate Systems.

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The term, blue moon, is a familiar one, though the origin of the phrase is still being debated by folklorists.*  This year, a second full moon will occur in November.  In harmony with the coming second moon, The Blue Moon Review introduces a phenomenon both rare and in contention:  Web-specific hypermedia writing.  

We have assembled ten works by women writers that use the features of the WWW to create a new kind of literature.  This work may seem as rare as an extra moon, but, in truth, it is part of a growing field - literary work that embraces the specific features of the WWW to create a new syntax of text, image, sound, and movement.

 

The Evolution of Web Hypermedia

Because the Internet began as primarily a text medium, electronic literature has been at home on the WWW for several years.  The Blue Moon Review was one of the first publications to bring literary texts on-line, and it has been publishing outstanding fiction and poetry since 1994, giving writers increased accessibility and the archiving powers of the new medium.  

The computer also lends itself to literary experiments that expand the aesthetic and sensory pleasures of reading a good poem or story.  These experiments began simply enough - adding images to linear text.  Then, as the technology improved, electronic writers began to venture into innovations that challenged our notion of text itself.  The earliest works in hypertext involved lexia-and-link constructions.  These works were, for the most part, text-based, but they featured multilinear structures - multiple story lines and complex spatial organization. 

Eastgate Systems published the landmark works in this form - classics such as Carolyn Guyer's Quibbling, Judy Malloy's its name was Penelope, Judy Malloy and Cathy Marshall's Forward, Anywhere, and Deena Larsen's Marble Springs.  Soon, the graphic capabilities of computers improved, and a second-generation of works utilized elaborate graphic interfaces.  For instance, Shelley Jackson's Patchwork Girl encouraged readers to click on parts of the body of the Patchwork Girl/Frankenstein/Mary Shelley monster to access the text.  Deena Larsen's Samplers used the 2001 stitches of a quilt to indicate the paths to the various stories.  Stephanie Strickland's True North employed graphic maps to interpret the inter-relations of the poems and allow access to them in a reader-determined order.  A third generation of hypertext - now a true hypermedia - has evolved in the last few years which incorporates text, graphics, sound, and animation; an example of this on CD-ROM is Califia by M.D. Coverley (yours truly).  

In addition to the evolution of disk- and CD-ROM-based electronic hypertext literature, a parallel development has taken place on the Web.  The first hypertexts were mainly text with simple graphics such as Martha Conway's Girl/Birth/Water/Death.  Since 1995, though, Web hypermedia literature has begun to acquire its own shape and character as writers explore the technical and structural features of html, dhtml, xml, java-script Java, and Flash.  In the recent hybrid WWW creations, the media all contribute to the essence and effect of the piece.  The field is still in its early stages, and the future will, no doubt, bring further developments in the form.  For now, however, certain qualities can be identified that tend to characterize hypermedia work on the WWW.  

 

Characteristics of Web-specific Literature

The pieces you will see in "Intersections: Explore" are illustrative of some of the significant characteristics in hypermedia work.   First, our familiar genre distinctions seem to disappear.  While linear text, even on the computer in non-material form, is easily categorized - the standard genres of poetry, fiction, and creative non-fiction are recognizable - hypermedia often defies conventional genre.   

In Deena Larsen and Geoffrey Gatza's e: electron, the poem emerges from a periodic table of the elements and is braided through a meditation on materiality.  Shelley and Pamela Jackson's The Doll Games is part game, part memoir, part documentary - and the reader is invited to submit his own doll stories to the collection.  Jennifer Ley's the amniotic meander ends with a re-entry into the "real" world, erasing the boundary between fiction and action.  Geniwate's 6 Calabi-Yau Poems includes a theory section that reflects on the ambiguity of the poetry.   

Other genre lines become blurred as well.  Since hypermedia includes graphics, sound, and movement, it often looks as much like "art" as it does literature.  The stanzas of Stephanie Strickland's poem in Errand Upon Which We Came are certainly poetry, but the text is embedded in Flash movies that expand the meaning and implications.  The text itself suggests that the reader might well devote as much attention to the choreography of image and sound, the oscillation between media, as to the words, themselves.  C. Allen Dinsmore's Terra is so visually striking that the reader may know a great deal about the narrative before ever reading a word of the story.  The processing of and interaction with the graphic and structural elements of these pieces is integral to the reading process.  Moreover, the blending of text, image, sound, and structure facilitates unusual modalities of point of view. 

The fluidity of multilinear structure encourages multiple voices - and we see literary forms that are may be intimate and omniscient in ways not often found in text-only narratives.  Judy Malloy's Interlude - Dorothy and Sid is part of a longer work, Dorothy Abrona McCrae, that is a fictionalized autobiography.  The informality and seeming spontaneity of the piece, however, are much more at home in Web narrative than in any formalized print publication.  Adrienne Eisen's What Fits also explores the possibilities of the intimate voice.  Here, the first person point of view is further internalized through the choices at the end of each section.  While Malloy and Eisen develop their fictional voices through multilinear internal monologues, hypermedia gives the author a range of tools for shaping narratives.  Diane Greco's Dirty Sex benefits from the sense of immediacy and drama that is created by the layering of windows of experience - a structure that materializes the process of discovery in the plot.  

On the other hand, Web hypertext can merge story and commentary, narrative and criticism in a seamless whole.  Giselle Beiguelman's Recycled is a collection of small Web effects - compact technical metaphors that, taken together, suggest the equivalent of a Web collage.  In a larger sense, each of these works is, in some way, both artifact and meta-statement.  Unlike linear print work, where the authorial presence is discounted out of "willing suspension," the hypermedia work always announces the authorial entity.  No matter what the lyric or narrative voice asserts, we cannot ignore the role of the an omniscient author/code-maker that constructed the framework of color, sound, movement, and technical facilitation.  In the case of work launched on the network that evolves randomly or is able to sustain intervention from others, the authorial contribution is more ambiguous, but not less visible.  Because the code-maker cannot be suspended, hypermedia works operate in a space where the potential for multiple points of view is pre-established.  

Readers readily discover the innovative features in Web-specific writing - hybrid media (graphics, sound, animation, structure, text), multilinear voices, genre-blending and so forth.  Yet, naming, and assigning aesthetic values to these elements, has proven to be far more difficult.  Neither artists nor critics have agreed upon a suitable term for this form, and the writers are not sure what to call themselves, either!  

 

Shall it be Spinsters, Websters, Web Artists, Web Writers, New Media Writers?

If rose is a rose, Gertrude, then a name is a name, too.  In former centuries, myriad terms existed for those who plied the weaver's trade.  J.R. Dolan, in his study, English Ancestral Names:  The Evolution of the Surname from Medireview Occupations, lists several categories for names that were associated with the making of fabric.  Those employed in the wool industry, spinners and weavers especially, might be Spinners, Twiners, or Wynders.  Weavers carried names like Borrell, Draper, Laner, Threader, Wooler, or Webber.  According to Dolan, these surnames evolved originally through tax records.  And, if the tax-payer happened to be a woman, her moniker would have the "ster" suffix.*  Thus, Spinner - Spinster; Webber - Webster.  In days of yore, then, the Spinster term was not at all perjorative, but rather identified a woman spinner who was responsible for her own business.
In keeping with the idea of craft and proprietary art, then, the women who create Web-specific literature could be termed "Websters."  Our own associations with the term "Webster" might be germane, as well.  We think of the compiler of the famous dictionary.  In many ways these women are working on a similar project, not only weaving the new literature of the web, but also inventing a new dictionary of visual/textual/aural language in the process.

 

But what shall we call it?

In the same way that the adoptions of family surnames required a process of trial and error, the aesthetics and poetics of electronic hypermedia literature are yet in evolution.  Since the early Hypercard and Storyspace examples of multilinear writing were primarily text, the term "hypertext" was current for a while.  

Soon, however, hypertext writing began to incorporate one or several other media.  At that point it became difficult to disguish, in some pieces, between visual art, poetry, narrative, criticism, design, and even music compostion.  All of these activities had become fused to the literary project.  New names sprang up.  Net.work, Web.work, Web-specific literature, e-literature, rich-lit, Open Work, Net.Art.  To date, no one handy term has come to represent the scope of Web-specific hypermedia work.  And, in much the same way, the characterisitics of the pieces you will see/read/experience are remarkably varied and fluid.  

 

Is it Literature?

Finally, like the historic origins of the term, blue moon, hypermedia literature is a subject of contention.  One question critics raise is this: is it literature?  Foes of hypermedia literature dismiss it by association:  graphics and sound suggest commerciality and therefore cannot be a part of literature.  Critics also disparage the "flashiness" and reliance on technology.  More often, criticism of electronic hypermedia isdirected at the fact that one can't hold the leather volume in one's hand, read it in the bathtub.


But The Blue Moon Review readers are already familiar with excellent literature on-line, and perhaps you will find that these pioneer writers are building a body of work preserving the qualities we admire in fine linear text and suggesting a new and unexpected mode of textuality as well.  The decision is finally, the prerogative of the reader.  In the light of the bluest moon, let us make a visit.

*Sources for blue moon research:  

Sky and Telescope, 1999.

MUN Folklore & Language Archive

 

      

 

Back to Home | Back to Hypermedia

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The Bestowing Sun
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Making Scenes
by Adrienne Eisen

Small Boat with Oars of Different Size
by Thom Ward

Interesting Monsters
by Aldo Alvarez

The Gauguin Answer Sheet
by Dennis Finnell

Rosicrucian in the Basement
by Robert Sward

Bloodroot
by Aaron Roy Even

A Patrimony of Fishes
by Doug Lawson


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