Where are the HyperNONfictions?
von Hilmar Schmundt


At the 1990 European Conference on Hypertext, Mark Bernstein posed a now notorious question: "Where are the hypertexts?" He used the generic term, but what materialized, if that is the word, were hyper- FICTIONS. So where are the hyper-NONfictions?

The lack of interactive, well-told nonfiction (I'm not talking about archives or expanded textbooks), this lack is all the more astonishing, as one of the first commercial hypertext programs to be published by Mark Bernstein's Eastgate Systems ten years ago, was indeed a hyperNONfiction textbook about "the Election of 1912", which is also its title. "The country was caught up in a ferment of domestic issues", the intro to this hypernonfiction reads, "as industrialization and urbanization transformed the fabric ot the entire nation.... This grand weave of facts, issues, people and events is particularly suited to hypertext.... Linear organization is not inherent in the structure of facts and ideas, but only in the physical structure of paper and ink books." Theoretically: yes. Even in terms of the marketplace: yes again - there should be a lot of demand for hypernonfiction. After all, it is in nonfiction where print publishers nowadays make the hugest profits - so why not in the field of interactive nonfiction? Where are the hypernonfictions?

There is - to misquote Michael Joyce - no easy way to answer this question. But whichever one of all the possible explanations we come up with: they may be relevant to a deeper understanding of both the future of interactive narrative as well as the future of traditional print-based literature - and of journalism, for that matter.


There's a Way New Journalism out on the internet, so they say. The term is Joshua Quittner's, the phenomenon plain to see: multimedia-coverage of an ascent of Mount Everest in the e-zine The Mountain Zone, an interactive guide to the site of Mumia Abu Jamal's arrest in the e-zine WORD, interactive stockmarket charts, databases, travelsites - but none of them narrative in the sense that hyperfictions are.

"Until we have flexible flat panels with brilliant, high-definition displays, reading on the screen sucks " Quittner rightly observes, and suggests a solution: "sudden narrative to the rescue: Tell me a dramatic story in, say, 250 words". But so far we have seen little of it. "nearly all of the available (online-) journalism consists not of original reportage at all, but of repurposed text and fotos, of news that previously ran elsewhere," online-journalist Laura Italian observes in the Columbia Journalism Review. So is the concept of hypernonfiction only wishful thinking and vaporware? Is there no Didion, no Mailer out there doing hyperreportage? Journalists are early adaptors - so why did they not get the hypertext-scoop?


Let's begin at the beginning and take a little guided detour. Technological hype sometimes blinds us to the most basic ingredient of both novels and journalism: language. And it is in the language and style that is being used in both fiction and nonfiction concerned with interactive media that the strongest convergence of the two genres can be observed. There's another manifesto rallying for a Way New Journalism: it's called the WIRED STYLE book. Its intro reads thus: "How can we write about machines without losing a sense of humanity and poetry?.... At Wired, we celebrate writing that jacks us into the soul of a new society. In short, we celebrate voice.... Provocative writing demands out-of-the-box thinking, a calculated willingness to break many of journalism's cardinal rules." Kiss the inverted pyramid goodbye, the editrix Constance Hale suggests - and overstate matters, if it helps to make journalism a, well, a text-adventure, so to say: "When we say 'SCREW the rules'," she encourages, "we encourage you to do the following: Welcome inconsistency, especially in the interest of voice and cadence."

Mark Amerika, although highly critical of the WIRED agenda, in the same vein announces some sort of faction as an Avant-Pop technique: "various creative discourses fused, interfused and confused with various facts-oriented writing that typically gets labelled nonfiction.... Fiction equals I plus fact". The same style can be observed in Mondo 2000, WORD, SALON and even in Time's neat nettime. In both fiction and fact, both online and off- and regardless of the political persuasion of the writers, they all use a similar aesthetic of faction. And I would add: it's a period style. Period.


This period style's central tenets sound a lot like the poetology, if this is the word, of the New Journalism of the sixties: it was dubbed "First-Person Journalism", "brain candy" or "printed tv", it was full of dialogue, a strong narrative voice and Gonzo flashbacks. Thousands of so-called Little Mags flourished back then and their technological basis resembled that of the e-zine: a vibrant youth culture plus a cheap new publishing technology (xerox and offset printing was back then what hotmetal or webweaver are today). When we extrapolate from what happened to the New Journalism over the last 30 years, it becomes clear: None of these experimental 60s-zines left a lasting impression. What did though, was Tom Wolfe's famous manifesto "The New Journalism", in which he maintained that literary journalism was out to save the tradition of realism, of Flaubert and Zola, from the bloody fangs of postmodern narrative. This conservative autostereotype stuck.

Since the publication of Michael Joyce's hyperfiction "Afternoon" ten years ago, some academic writers turned hypertexan and attempted to literalize exactly the pomo-aesthetic Tom Wolfe had criticised as the spokesman of the new journalists - who in the meantime had abandoned the experiments of the sixties and gone back to writing in a really realist tradition. The gulf between the two cultures, academic and journalistic, deepened.


Now The Way New Journalism, its subjectivity and its rejection of the inverted pyramid, marks a renewed convergence of the two literary traditions, of postmodern writing and literary journalism. But Neal Stephenson and Gary Wolf, Doug Rushkoff and Joshua Quittner write their scifi-inspired, Way New Journalism ABOUT netrelated issues - not IN a hypertext structure. The same applies to Gundolf Freyermuth, one of the most important figures for something like a German New Journalism that flowered for a short time during the eighties in the magazine called Transatlantik. In his reportage for Telepolis and other online publications he uses the cyberian period style - but not its media, he does not WRITE hyperNONfiction (except for the odd interactive footnote in his articles for the e-zine Telepolis). And most likely he never will - because he mainly pursues journalism to pay the rent while he is busy writing novels.


So why not use the novel online-media instead or on top of it? There are two ways to explain this. The first is a mediacentric explanation: Maybe the spatial metaphors used to describe hypertext are not just metaphors, but technical reality. For good reasons most hyper-NONfictions are visual stories that choose a distinct topography as topos: Pedro Meyer's "I photograph to Remember", Art Spiegelman's hypercomic MAUS on CD-ROM or the New York Times' interactive photoreportage about Bosnia. So maybe hyper-NONfiction has to be visual and topographical, not literary, not narrative in a linguistic sense. I would suggest another approach, though. One that does not see technology as the determining factor, but as a tool, a weapon in an age-old struggle against the anxiety of influence.

Of course it is unfashionable to cite ole Harold Bloom. Nobody does it in the context of hyper/text/theory - as opposed to the school of thought he was struggling with, namely Paul de Man and Jaques Derrida. But precisely that makes Bloom's argument valuable: it has not been incorporated into the cyblabla so far, his thought therefore allows an outside perspective on what is going in hypertext discourse: Only by going historic can we build up friction and thus escape the fictions and factions of all the hysteric WIREDOS, NEGROPONTIFICATIONS and DERRIDADAisms that inform and misinform so much of hypermedia theory today.

There are other reasons why Bloom might matter: Like with any net criticism and not unlike like the new journalists, namely like Tom Wolfe, Bloom's strong personal voice in this text tends to culminate in a manifesto. Indeed the reflexive "interchapter" sandwiched into his analysis is a free verse poem with the title "A Manifesto for Antithetical Criticism" and contains sentences like: "Influence is influenza - an astral disease." (This sounds very much like "language is a virus" or like Douglas Rushkoffs rants about memes. )

Besides, Bloom's style in hindsight, read backwards from todays perspective, shows that regardless of his conservatism his writing style was paradigmatic for the period style of sixties avant garde culture. When he claims that "there are no interpretations but only misinterpretations, and so all criticism is prose poetry", this sounds very much like the argument that the New Journalists made about their immersion reporting in the sixties - and the argument today that the web culture can only be grocked by immmersing yourself, not by analyzing from the outside.

Sue Thomas in an introduction to Net of Desire writes: "The fact is that virtuality is an entirely new cultural form which has to be lived to be understood, and the only way to live it, is to obtain a character, build a place and get on with it." That sounds suspiciously like Blooms argument for what we might call poetic immersion-criticism.

Mark Amerika's Avant Pop movement is a case in the point Bloom made about the anxiety of influence: Few electronic magazines rave more violently against the tradition of postmodernism than alt-x does. And at the same time his anthology of manifestoes by the title of "In Memoriam to Postmodernism" makes explicit the indebtedness to the predecessors of nonlinear narrative, among them Coover, Burroughs, Barthelme, Delillo, Pynchon - in fact, the whole ole PoMo canon!

In spite of this indeptedness, of because of it, "NoMo PoMo" is the battle cry of the magazine AltX, whose name itself refers not only to a generation, but to the two keys on the keyboard that are used to end a computer program - and on a deeper level, a literary one. The use of the internet is therefore much more than just a means of cheap worldwide distribution. The new media in that sense are an old strategy to both build on a tradition and to creatively misread it - which is the mark of all "strong poets" as Bloom suggests. And the strategy of the Avant Popsters around Mark Amerika, likewise, can be subsumed under Blooms term of "misprision".


This is where Tom Wolfe and the old New Journalism of the sixties comes back into play. For Wolfe, the mark of literary journalism was not only to master scene and dialogue, but to pay close attention to status details. At first glance this may seem odd - at second, it's a lucid description of his own anxiety. In journalism this anxiety never ever was diachronic, the stylistic struggle never directed against the fatherfigures like Hemingway, Zola, Kisch or Herodot - on the contrary. Instead, the anxiety of literary journalists is directed towards the high status of fiction - and the best example for that lies in the name of the genre itself: literary journalism is being defined by what it is not: non-fiction.

Many of the best writers started out as journalists, working the fat off their style until finally they could retreat into a logcabin in the woods and write the Great American Novel. This is the way Whitman began and Hemingway, Steinbeck and Tom Wolfe. Literary journalists are more anxious about their low status as journalists than about their stylistic precursors - and consequently they cannot counteract this anxiety by going online - but only by publishing books, be it fiction or non-, books that may someday be reviewed in the pantheon of the New York Times Book Review, right next to books by REAL novelists, fiction writers, that is.

Gary Wolf of Wired magazine is a good example. His reportage style when writing about the internet is informed by the New Journalism of the sixties, and worthy of his predecessors. Gary Wolf could become the nineties version of his namesake Tom. But although he is in charge of the online-version of WIRED, he is NOT interested in working towards a higher form of interactive literary hypernonfiction - on the contrary. In the contested march issue of WIRED he and some other editors announced the advent of PUSH media: "We interrupt this magazine for a special bulletin", it said on the cover, "PUSH! Kiss your browser goodbye... And good riddance... We think we surf the web now, but what we really do is hopscotch across fragile stepping-stones of text, or worse, spelunk in a vast unmapped cave of documents. Only when waves of media begin to cascade behind our screens - huge swells of unbrowsable stuff - will we truly surf."

This cooptation of the internet by TV, the Dutch netcritic Geert Lovink suggests in his e-zine Nettime, would not only be the end of the net as we know it, but of WIRED itself (at least, as we know it now. Maybe it would become something like WIRED TV). But nobody seems to mourn at the suicidal death of the unborn genre of hyperNONfiction. On the contrary, the WIRED obituary is full of glee. Gary Wolf won't miss hypernonfiction - instead, he wants, of course, to write a book. The reason: "Online surfers won't read", is the conclusion of the research his team at HOTWIRED has been conducting. But there may be another reason for the passing of an unborn genre: While diachronic anxiety drives the hyperpoets webward, away from the past, the status angst of literary journalists makes them flock bookwards and backwards, away from the newsmongering everyday hackwork of the "everlasting present" of the newsroom - and the internet. So interactive journalism and interactive fiction may share the same period style and use the same means and media - but to different ends.

VIII 1/2

The study of narrative in the digital age depends on a much deeper understanding than just a technical one or one that buys into the consensual hallucination that we are on the brink of a totally new third culture. Delving deeper behind the literary life on the screen will show even more complexity than just the magic of the hyperlink or the carnivalesque din of voices in a chatroom. It will show that the link, hyper or not, between James Joyce and Michael Joyce is something totally different from the link between Tom Wolfe and Gary Wolf.