Hot on the heels of the release of the new family of Amazon Kindles, novelist Paul LaFarge takes to Salon to ask about another form of digital reading: Whatever happened to the hypertext novel? LaFarge points out that during the late ‘80s and the ‘90s, there was a great deal of buzz anointing the hypertext novel, which was served up on a floppy disc or CD-ROM, then online, and allowed readers to click on (of course) links that would take them to other sections of the book, allowing for self-referential material and a more meandering, customizable reading experience. But after a brief period of enthusiasm, the hypertext book faded away. LaFarge points out that no hypertext novels have been added to the genre’s Wikipedia page since 2001, for instance: “[A]lthough Wikipedia isn’t the final word on anything, you have to think, if someone had written a hypertext fiction, this is where they’d want to tell you about it.”
Why is LaFarge so interested in the fate of the late, not-so-great hypertext novel? Well, he’s working on one, which makes him a bit retro. Luminous Airplanes, which he describes as a “hyperromance”—and which his editor would prefer he call an “immersive text”—is available now, both online and in traditional hardback. “I feel like the kid who showed up to school on a snow day—I’m wondering, where is everybody?” He supposes that the format failed in part because “the early hypertextualists just weren’t good enough writers to carry off such a difficult form. Because it is a difficult form. Hard as it is to write novels, hypertexts are harder.” It’s a gutsy way for the author of a hypertext/immersive/whatever-you-want-to-call-it novel to set up the problem: He has declared the hypertext novel failed because the previous writers couldn’t get beyond the gimmick. His experiment may have worked: The Paris Review's Sadie Stein (formerly of Jezebel) praises both the book and the hypertext elements, saying, "Paul LaFarge’s strange, experimental, oddly moving Luminous Airplanes is worth reading for its own considerable merits. But for the full, interactive experience, you have to immerse yourself in the Web site, too." High praise. Maybe this hypertext thing will work out for LaFarge after all.
Would you read a hypertext novel on your e-reader, smartphone, or computer? My hesitation: I don’t even like clicking on footnotes on my Kindle.
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