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Digital Literature Pioneers: Michael Joyce on early Hypertext Fiction

Michael Joyce is a professor of English at Vassar College, NY, USA. His work afternoon: a story, 1987, was among the first works of hypertext fiction. The New York Times called Michael Joyce’s afternoon “the granddaddy of hypertext fictions,” while The Toronto Globe and Mail said that it “is to the hypertext interactive novel what the Gutenberg bible is to publishing,” and Der TAZ in Berlin termed him “Der Homer der Hypertexte.” afternoon has been translated into Italian, German, Polish, and French.

TLP: Your work afternoon, a story (1990) marks you as one of the early pioneer of electronic writing/ storytelling, can you tell us a bit about your work, what inspired it and what you were trying to achieve with projects such as afternoon?

MJ: I fear I’ve too often told the story of the writing of afternoon in 1987 (not 1990), which I actually began writing in late 1986 and distributed at the first ACM Hypertext meeting in 1987 at Chapel Hill NC where Jay Bolter and I also presented a paper “Hypertext and Creative Writing.”  Your date of 1990 marks when it was published by Eastgate but by then it had been widely distributed and written about (and at least one dissertation about it, by Jane Yellowless Douglas, was underway). Suffice it to say that Jay and I had met through the Yale Artificial Intelligence Lab where we each were visiting fellows albeit in successive years, each interested in new ways of storytelling, but neither of us, or much of the world, having heard the word hypertext (which, coincidentally, Ted Nelson first was quoted as using, albeit hyphenated, in print here at Vassar in 1965. Interested readers looking for the full genealogy can read my chapter, “What I Really Wanted to Do I Thought” in Of Two Minds (University of Michigan, 1995 or, better still, Belinda Barnet’s wonderful Memory Machines: The Evolution Of Hypertext (Anthem, 2003). There to Belinda I summarized our early work on Storyspace and my work on afternoon by saying  “I wanted, quite simply, to write a novel that would change in successive readings and to make those changing versions according to the connections that I had for some time naturally discovered in the process of writing and that I wanted my readers to share.”

TLP. What is it about hypertext that excited / excites you?

MJ: The physicality of it despite its digital nature, the way it responds, gives way, gives form, reforms beneath a reader’s touch in much the same way that poetic language, from the family table to literary performance, always had in my experience as the eldest of an Irish-American clan of poets, writers, actors, and storytellers.

TLP: What were the main challenges for writers of electronic literature in the 90s?

MJ: Again I’ll have to correct your timeline since a number of us began in the late 80’s to face questions that have continued to the present.  I’m thinking here of the TINAC writers, John McDaid, Stuart Moulthrop, Nancy Kaplan, and our adopted kin and co-conspirators, the aforementioned Jane Yellowless Douglas, and Carolyn Guyer and Martha Petry, the latter two whose Izme Pass was the focus of Bob Coover’s incendiary, first mention of hypertext in the pages of the New York Times Book Review . That cover essay of Bob’s prompted the first of the dreary procession of howls about how there was nothing new in hypertext, nothing the book couldn’t do (or hadn’t already done), how no one would ever read what one reviewer (a well-known novelist, of course now widely accessible online) called “twitchy little screens.” Together with these complaints there came more interesting, and still enduring questions, ones of narrative closure, of imagetext (and sonictext), of play, performance, and the nature of interaction and authorship.  Beyond that, of course, the available pre-1992 platforms (especially what was available on the network before the web) were difficult to use, not widely available

TLP: Casting your mind back to the 90s did you have any sense then of how electronic literature might evolve? Is it radically different to what you hoped or imagined?

MJ: In the 80’s. Yes. No.

TLP: Can you tell us a bit about your current practice, are you still writing electronic literature? If so, how it has evolved in terms of form, themes and programming?

MJ: I am still, always, writing, some of it has a digital focus, and most of it (like nearly everyone) begins its life wriggling on screen. The two digital, collaborative works in progress that I am currently involved with are in different sates of dormancy, not of my doing, but also not unexpectedly since it is something that happens because this kind of work so often depends upon the schedules of a busy team. “The Surface of Water,” is an Augmented Reality, blended panoramic narrative, by Jay David Bolter, Maria Engberg and myself designed for smart phone or tablet, which addresses the work and career of the Swedish painter Anders Zorn. The second “Fictional Encounters,” hopes to combine aspects of collaborative drawing projects, film-making, locative fiction, and augmented and alternative reality games. It is a collaboration among the Los Angeles visual artist Alexandra Grant, Robert Nashak, a video game veteran and professor at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts, and AR programmer Lucas Kazansky.

Of this question’s menu of options, “form, themes and programming,” I’d say that the last has most evolved, the first after that, and it’s likely that my themes do not so much evolve as deepen, like ripe, old cheese.

TLP: There seems to have been vibrant electronic literature scene in the US and particularly California (Judy Malloy etc.) in the early 90s, what do you attribute that to?

MJ: I’m surely not the one to attribute the sources of the vibrancy of the California scene, especially since Fred Turner is precisely that person and has written about it eloquently. His account of  how “computers started to represent a very different kind of world: a collaborative and digital utopia modeled on the communal ideals of the hippies” in From Counterculture to Cyberculture is utterly compelling and convincing, and also interesting in its suggestion of the handicaps presented by the inbred aspects of what, well before Turner’s book in another setting the UK media theorists Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron dubbed “The Californian Ideology.”

That said, then as now the California computer industry sustained a wide creative community, numbers of whom gravitated to the WELL, where Judy published Uncle Roger and poetic innovators such as Jim Rosenberg were working. I remember when Stuart Moulthrop and John McDaid showed us Uncle Roger at the first TINAC meeting in Ithaca in 1988 the excitement in knowing that there were west coast tributaries of  the extraordinary capillary network of digital work and electronic artists that the 1987 ACM meeting had already exposed. We were delighted when Eastgate published Judy’s “It’s Name Was Penelope” and Judy joined Carolyn Guyer’s influential women’s hypertext collective Hi Pitched Voices then housed (and thence lost) from Bob Coover’s “Hypertext Hotel,” the Brown University MOO. Our two streams were brought together at an MLA session in New York, organized I believe by Terry Harpold in 1993 or 1994, where Judy, Stuart Moulthrop, Carolyn Guyer, and I spoke.

TLP: Which current writers of electronic/ digital literature do you particularly admire? Why?

MJ: As incestuous and intertextual as it may seem, allow me to quote from an interview I gave last summer to the UK online journal “Don’t Do It“:

“As regards ‘promising contemporary innovations in digital text,’ I’ll take a bye. From the time I stepped away from playing an active part in the digital media community, I’ve been loathe to say yea or nay about any particular work, largely because I felt I had no right to do so, but also because at first I worried that it would be taken as some explanation for what ‘drove me away,’ when in fact I wandered away on my own volition. Now that no one particularly cares what digital work I do or don’t like, and increasingly few in fact know my work, it would seem pretentious to do so.”

In the interview I did mention some writers who interest me, especially Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries, to which I’d add here “Conduit d’aération” the iPad novel by French artists, Lucile Haute, Alexandra Saemmer, Aurélie Herbet, and Julien Pénasse and the very exciting ABRA, by Kate Durbin, Amaranth Borsuk and Ian Hatcher, which is a sort of a next generation artist’s/pillow book (integrating an iPad).

TLP:. What do you think are the main opportunities and challenges for writers of electronic/ digital working now?

MJ: The main opportunities, as the above suggests, are collaborative; the main challenges are, as always, finding an audience in the midst of the maelstrom of seemingly ubiquitous, often ridiculous,  work spewed forth by media conglomerates, would-be prospects for media conglomerate buy-outs, and such. The question is to find the living tissue, the live wires, and connect them.

That and, of course, being able to see through language, in both senses of seeing through as lens and persistence.

Image Credit: Amaranth Borsuk photographed by Brad Bouse

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