Hypertext Fiction

An analysis of Hypertext Fiction


Hypertext is text displayed on a computer or other electronic device with references (hyperlinks) to other text that the reader can immediately access, usually by a mouse or keypress sequence. Hypertext, apart from running text, may contain tables, images and other representational devices.

Hypertext Fiction is a genre of electronic literature characterized by the use of hypertext links which provides a new context for non-linearity in “literature” and reader interaction. The reader typically chooses links to move from one node of text to the next, and in this fashion arranges a story from a deeper pool of potential stories. Its spirit can also be seen in interactive fiction. The term can also be used to describe traditionally-published books in which a nonlinear narrative and interactive narrative is achieved through internal references. James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922), Jorge Luis Borges’ The Garden of Forking Paths (1941), Vladimir Nabokov’s  Pale Fire (1962) are early examples predating the word ” hypertext”, while a common pop-culture example is the Choose Your Own Adventure series in  young adult fiction and other similar gamebooks. The Garden of Forking Paths is both a hypertext story and a description of a fictional hypertext work.


The etymology of the word hypertext reveals an interesting insight into hypertext fiction. The prefix hyper- comes from the Greek, meaning “over” or “above”. It has common origins with the English word “super” which signifies the overcoming of the old linear constraints of the linear text. The use of the word Hypermedia is more accurate.

Key Concepts

Hypertext is the underlying concept defining the structure of the World Wide Web. In hypertext fiction the reader typically chooses links to move from one node of text to the next and in this fashion arranges a story from a deeper pool of potential stories. This spirit can also be seen in interactive fiction. The term can also be used to describe traditionally-published books in which a non-linear narrative and interactive narrative is achieved through internal references. Non-Linear Narratives are often used to mimic the structure and recall of human memory. Beginning a narrative in medias res (Latin; “into the middle of things”) began in ancient times as an oral tradition. This technique involves narrating most of the story in flashback. It was established as a convention of epic poetry with Homer’s Iliad in the 8th century BC. Interactive Fiction, (IF) describes software simulating environments in which players use text commands to control characters and influence the environment. Works in this form can be understood as literary narratives and as video games. In common usage the term refers to text adventures, a type of adventure game where the entire interface can be “text-only”, known as text mode.

Hypertext Fiction History

The first hypertext fictions were published prior to the development of the World Wide Web, using software such as Storyspace and Hypercard. ‘Afternoon, a story’, published in 1987 by Eastgate systems and written by Michael Joyce is generally considered one of the first hypertext fictions. Other examples that shortly followed, mostly from Eastgate systems, were Stuart Moulthrop’s Victory Garden, its name was Penelope by Judy Malloy and Shelley Jackson’s Patchwork girl. The internationally oriented but US based Electronic Literature Organization(ELO) was founded in 1999 to promote the creation and enjoyment of electronic literature. Other organisations for the promotion of electronic literature include, trAce Online Writing Community, a British organization, started in 1995, that has fostered electronic literature in the UK, Dichtung Digital, a journal of criticism of electronic literature in English and German, and ELINOR, a network for electronic literature in the Nordic countries, which provides a directory of Nordic electronic literature. The Electronic Literature Directory lists many works of electronic literature in English and other languages.

Critical Theory

Many critics in literary circles see hypertext fiction and poetry as a “humorless digital postmodern joke” (Lillington 1) that assaults readers with floating neon fonts and crude literary strategies, if any literary skill is present at all. They view hypertext as a threat to the overall integrity of literature because most anyone, without any training or editing, can post hypertext “poetry” or “fiction,” even if their work does not include any traditional conventions. Proponents of hypertext literature argue that online texts are an original art form, which combines cinematic technique with live performance qualities, and is not designed to be viewed in the same light as printed literature (Lillington 1).

Hypertext has been a predictable mate for postmodern theorists, who believe in uncertainty and that texts are open to endless, shifting readings. The nature of hypertext embodies uncertainty by turning its back on traditional uses of point of view, voice and a sense of closure (Lillington 2). The postmodernists have been successful in establishing a connection between the new genre of hypertext and the accepted school of postmodern literary thought. An authoritative mark of their success was the recent inclusion of a J. Yellowlees Douglas’s hypertext work in the Norton Anthology of Postmodern American Fiction, a standard text in American literary courses (Lillington 2).


Megan Kerr clearly articulates the role hypertext fiction plays in postmodernism. She says, hypertext fiction is an obvious PR for postmodern theory. While academic circles are growing tired of the word “postmodern”, hypertext is its ultimate ”Show and Tell”. The active role of the user in navigating a hypertext and making sense of the disparate pages received, along with the choice of links that generate multiple paths and non-linear structures, counters all that nasty patriarchal, hierarchical, empirical linearity that postmodernism seeks to rupture. The variability of contexts (which page do I read before and after that page) emphasizes the role of context in generating meaning, a brief bow to post-structural theories of language. It has Derrida’s mutability and mobility, it is Roland Barthes’ “galaxy of signifiers”, it speaks in a deliciously post-structural, feminist way of multiple entrances, openings, mazes, and interiors.








Hypertext fiction was heralded as the future of the book. However, the Wikipedia entry for hypertext fiction lists no published works after 2001. The forms seeming demise is puzzling because the last 10 years has seen the rise of the Kindle, the e-book, the e-reader and a crisis in traditional book publishing. Hypertext fiction is in a tough place now. Born into a world that wasn’t quite ready for it, and encumbered with lousy technology and user-hostile interface design, it got a bad reputation, at least outside of specialized reading circles. At the same time, it’s impossibly hard to create, one of the only modes of fiction we know of which is more demanding than the novel.





Kopowski, Gene. “Cyberscribes Turn Storytelling into ‘Hypertext’ Storysharing.” Insight on the News 13 (1997): 36

Lillington, Karlin. “Breaking the Bounds of the Page.” World Press Review 45 (1998): 46-47.