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  • Stuck in a Loop? Dialogue in Hypertext Fiction
  • Bronwen Thomas (bio)

Hypertext Fiction and Interactivity: Issues and Debates

Hypertext fiction has provoked much debate since the appearance of the first examples in the late 80s. Much of this debate has been focused on questions regarding the status of these fictions, and their implications for the experience of writing and reading. Where close analysis of the form has been attempted (e.g. J. Yellowlees Douglas's readings of Joyce's afternoon, a story), it has mainly consisted of an attempt to "make sense" of the narrative, untangling the strands of the plot, and searching for some kind of closure. While this approach has offered valuable insights into the narrative structures of these fictions, and into the mechanics of the interfaces they employ, little attention has been paid to specific aspects of their style, especially the representation of speech and thought. Hypertext fiction has come a long way since the earliest examples, most notably in exploring the possibilities of creating a multimedia artifact where sounds and images accompany the written text.1 However, this paper will focus on the use of dialogue in two early hypertext fictions. Both Michael Joyce's afternoon, a story (first published 1987) and Yellowlees Douglas's I Have Said Nothing (1994) have achieved near-canonical status having been excerpted in print in the Norton anthology Postmodern American Fiction (Geyh). As is often the case with hypertext fictions, the writers, Jane Yellowlees Douglas and Michael Joyce, also happen to be two of the foremost theorists of the form, and the sense of mutual influence is unavoidable. The aims of this paper are twofold: to explore the functions of dialogue in these fictions and the extent to which the representations are [End Page 357] innovative; and to examine whether we need to reassess our models for understanding the functions and forms of fictional dialogue as we have begun to apply them to the print novel.

For critics such as Marie-Laure Ryan, now that the hype about hypertext fiction has died down, we are left with the sobering fact that outside of university departments and a fairly small group of writers/theorists, these fictions are not widely read or talked about. Questions have been raised about the quality of the writing, and scepticism expressed about the more overblown claims made for the form. In particular, the claim that such fictions offer the reader an interactive experience has been exposed as both hollow and naively literal (e.g. Miall). But this debate has at least led to a fascinating examination of what exactly we mean by interaction, which has important implications for the study of exchanges that take place within the story world, as well as for those that take place between reader and writer, hitherto the main focus. Existing studies of dialogue-as-interaction (Leech and Short; Toolan) tend to focus on set-piece scenes, and conversational routines or rituals, but the very idea that we can isolate and fix on a "conversation" as some kind of event becomes much more problematic in hypertext fiction as the context and even the content of what is said is much more mutable.

Nevertheless, when we approach dialogue in hypertext fictions, it is instructive to remember that there is a long history of experimentation with the technique in the print novel, raising important issues to do with the forms and functions of narrative and their ideological implications. Michael Joyce frequently acknowledges both in his nonfictional writing and in the intertextual references within his novels, his debt to writers such as James Joyce ("the Greater Joyce"), Samuel Beckett, and Gertrude Stein. I shall argue that some of the techniques employed in hypertext fiction are recognizable from print novels, but this is not to say, as critics of hypertext fictions tend to do, that there is nothing new here. Rather, it is to assert that the representation of speech, too often dismissed or ignored as merely providing "colour" and "variety" in a text, is crucial to our understanding and experience of that text, whether it be in print or hypertext form, and that experimentation with the device may provoke far reaching questions about the...