dire predictions now seem premature. Books—that is, printed
books of text, actual physical objects—continue to be written,
manufactured, sold, consumed and debated. The authors of such
books still tour the big-box retailers (of which there are
more) and independent bookstores (of which there are far fewer)
reading from, signing and hawking products with actual heft
and weight—literally, if not always literarily. And the more
prominent of those authors still grant interviews and make
the rounds of talk shows—or, amid much fuss and tiptoeing
round Oprah, don’t make the rounds. Books are obviously still
Coover’s doomsayers completely off-base? The cyberpunks, the
hyperspace freaks, were they little more than millenarian-type
crackpots cranked up on caffeine and binary code? Does the
publishing industry remain untouched by the computer revolution?
Well, duh, of course not.
the more interesting and practical developments is the advent
of online publishing companies. Traditional publishing firms
are, in keeping with other megacorporations, downsizing and
consolidating in an attempt to remain profitable. The once
highbrow aristocratic image of the industry has given way
to a different type of exclusive elitism. In his book Rebel
Yell: A Short Guide to Writing Fiction, Lance Olsen quotes
the head of Knopf, Sonny Mehta, espousing his bottom-line
philosophy: “Why should I publish books if they’re not going
to make money?” And unless you’re Michael Crichton, Stephen
King or a former president, chances are your book won’t. Which
is why, according to Olsen, less than 1 percent of submitted
manuscripts are accepted and published by traditional firms—a
daunting figure in light of the fact that the American Council
of Arts reports that more than 38 million Americans are currently
solution is provided by online services such as iUniverse.com.
Submit your finished manuscript, and for a base price of $99
(slightly higher if you submit via “snail mail”) you get “your
work published as a high-quality, trade paperback print-on-demand
book.” By printing only on demand—that is, only when a customer
orders—iUniverse spares itself unnecessary expense and overhead
and can, the theory is, put more money in the pocket of the
author. (Metroland music writer J. Eric Smith went
that route for his first novel, Eponymous.) The iUniverse
Web site boasts a royalty rate of 20 percent, a rate significantly
higher than the estimated industry average of 6 to 12 percent.
In addition, the press promises to secure a unique ISBN (International
Standard Book Number) for your book, allowing for its distribution
through national retail bookstores, such as Barnes & Noble
the end result of that Internet-facilitated process is still
a printed artifact, an actual book (many books if you’re talented
and/or lucky). At this late date, a full decade after Coover’s
seeming eulogy for print, shouldn’t we have an example of
truly non-print-based literature? Well, sure.
called hypertext, and at the time Coover was writing, it was
already at least five years old. Michael Joyce’s Afternoon,
released on floppy disk in 1987, is regarded as the first
popularly significant example of hyperfiction, which Joyce
defined as “true electronic text, what we will come to conceive
as the natural form of multinodal, multisensual writing.”
For a layman’s explanation, (or an example, anyway) of what
multinodal, multisensual writing might look like, check out
the online literary magazine of the University at Albany (www.albany.edu/~litmag
Rinse Sanitize,” by Davis Schneiderman, with contributions
from Matt Kirkpatrick, begins as an e-mail file bearing the
path heading: “reply-to: firstname.lastname@example.org.” The indicated
sender is “anyonecanwrite.” A poetically rambling message
“All communication is one way and RINSE—is an editor whose
services are responsible for all formats of the associate
consistent voice merchandising division . . .” By clicking
on the ENTER HEAR link at the end of the message, you are
presented with a triptych of scrolling windows bearing the
titles Repeat, Rinse, Sanitize. Each scroll contains highlighted
passages that, when clicked, propel you forward into the subsequent
scroll, or at the end of the third, backward to the previous.
The format—the triptych, the scrolls—suggests fine-art and
religious history, but the words and the nonlinear, episodic
nature of navigation through them, confound attempts to derive
a dogmatic or pedagogical purpose: “Xiola explodes the plotlines
of the Megalopolis, moving backwards, unfolding katydids,
blooming lotus freeways . . .” Click. “Symbiote jogs ahead
like a memory . . .” Click. “ACCOMMODATE THE LONG tirade of
minute rewrites from the overworked sci-fi-fed brainiacs .
. .” Click.
“1 With Pierre’s Words,” from the magazine’s CD-ROM anthology
Gravitational Intrigue. Over a grid of photographs
featuring seated musicians and a blurred dancer, words scroll
in the right-hand margin: “Strum . . . strum . . . strum .
. . mmmm . . . sssss.” They graphically reproduce a portion
of the soundtrack, in which poet Pierre Joris intones those
words over a composition for flute, conga and electronics.
works of literature? Are they poems? Are they even stories—with
their plotlines exploded? Unrecognizable, even chaotic, as
they may seem to those familiar with the more-or-less orderly
progression from “Call me Ishmael” to “Finis,” they are nonetheless
crafted works. Don Byrd, professor of English at the University
at Albany and faculty advisor to The Little Magazine,
points to the wizard behind the screen.
the idea is that you’re completely free inside the information,”
he says, seemingly reiterating hypertext- revolutionary rhetoric.
“But, in fact, you’re not. There is someone who already knows
the apparent avoidance of the traditional dramatic arc, there
is still an authorial presence behind the works, an intention,
however obscure. And the issue of hypertext documents’ definition
as specifically literary works is just a splinter debate of
a much larger—and hoary—discussion, according to Byrd.
whole idea of literary-ness is similar to the whole idea of
art,” he says. “Art has always been this specialized zone,
this kind of blessed zone where we manage to have a kind of
freedom to design the world kind of as we want. And increasingly,
we get to design the actual world, for instance, with control
of the genome and with various kinds of interventions in the
physical world—not just the aesthetic world. Suddenly, the
real attraction comes not from designing this ideal logic
off in an art space, but out in the real world.”
of time-honored categories and art-critical definitions, the
blessed zone of the literary?
chuckles at what he typifies as a “tightassed” concern of
the academic art scene. “Universities are conservative on
purpose,” he says. “It’s their job to ensure that the inherited
database does not get infected with charlatans and fads.”
In other words, the argument as to what is, and is not, literature
provides little more than an obstacle to the production of
some really cool shit.
place of an elbow-patched scholarly-type transcribing meaning
into printed text, Byrd proposes a different authorial archetype.
“My model of the ideal relationship to information is the
DJ, where the DJ has the box of vinyl there, and can select
and move and produce stuff,” he says. “Where you’re actually
intervening with the information in some way.” It’s the potential
for real-time collaboration and interaction between author-composer
and audience (readers-auditors-dancers) that most excites
Byrd. And if that collaboration erases the traditional and
discreet notions of author and audience, if they become one
another, or if literature adopts an alias, so be it.
get a situation where you’re actually plugged into the information
flow, it’s a much more powerful relationship to information,”
he says, strange as the new forms may appear to the uninitiated
or the archly conservative, this oddity is only an appropriate
beginning. After all, he notes with a laugh, “I’ve never been
able to find things to read that are as weird as life.”
it is likely still too soon to order flowers for the graveside
of the book, we almost certainly have experienced the beginning
of a new, unique and parallel literary environment—one for
which you won’t have to make quite as much shelf space.